Kelly earns stripes the 'Hardway'
JASON CLEVETT - SLAM! Wrestling
On February 20th 2004 in Surrey, B.C., ECCW fans witnessed the fourth edition of the annual Pacific Cup tournament culminate in a three-way dance between 2003 winner Scotty Mac, indy sensation Jack Evans and NWA Canadian Junior-Heavyweight Champion Major Hardway. Shortly after Evans eliminated Mac, he attempted a hurricanrana on Hardway, who blocked it and planted him with a cradle piledriver to add his name to the winners of the Pacific Cup Trophy.
"It felt really good, I crept in through the back door. I was the underdog going in, not taken seriously to win it. A lot of people had their names thrown around as the winner." Hardway told SLAM! Wrestling. "I am fortunate because my match in the first round would have been more difficult if Black Dragon had made the show (car trouble forced his cancellation at the last second)."
The tournament in the past has featured wrestlers such as American Dragon and Christopher Daniels, while the three previous winners represent the cream of the crop of West Coast talent. Hardway was honored to add his name to the list.
"It was a huge privilege. I have the trophy sitting here, and I think about the three guys who won it before, Asian Cougar, Black Dragon and Scotty Mac. They are elite names on the west coast. All three have a depth of experience in places like Japan, Scotty is making waves in Portland Wrestling, they have all had a lot of success. For me to add my name to that list, hopefully that will help catapult me onto bigger and better things. I would love to head out east and show people there that the West has just as good of wrestlers. The mountains kind of kill us, because it costs so much money to fly us out there."
It was the culmination of years of hard work and effort for Hardway, who broke into the business at the age of 27, several years older than many who dream of wrestling stardom, and is now in his early 30s.
"It's funny, I wrestled Ja Jacobe last year and he was floored because he thought I was in my late 20's. He was impressed that I kept up with him."
The reasoning for breaking in so late was due to his early years as a wrestling fan. Growing up in Ontario, he grew up watching WWF and Maple Leaf Wrestling. Seeing wrestlers at 6'6" and 300 pounds caused him to think he didn't have a chance at ever being in the ring. Fortunately for him wrestling has changed to include smaller, faster athletes.
"The business has changed a lot. Back then it wasn't as well known that it was worked. As a kid growing up, I wanted to do it but they were huge. I'm 5'9", when I started I weighed 165 pounds. I really had trouble believing that any promoter would have interest in a guy like that. I was into martial arts so athletically I could do things. I was just missing the look that promoters want, the "Larger Than Life" look. As a fan, if you get to meet a WWE star, you want them to tower over you or make you go 'wow this guy could squish me.' The average independent guy is under height and under weight by New York standards, you see them walking around in the mall and say 'He doesn't look so tough, I saw him wrestle but I could take him.' The former stars are out there working independent shows because people still want to see the larger than life characters. They aren't so keen on seeing someone who is 5'6", 150 pounds. As ignorant and rude as it may seem, that is what it is about, making people want to buy a ticket to see you."
The perception was altered when, while attending a martial arts seminar with Dan Severn he met ECCW promoter Dave Republic.
"There was a show in Surrey that weekend that I didn't know about because I didn't realize that they had local wrestling. He came in with Stewart Kemp and gave me Michelle Starr's number. I got ahold of him and started to train. I wasn't worried about the cost, I just wanted to say ‘Yeah I did it.' I've always believed that if you put your mind to it you can do anything, and I wanted to see if I could do it, and I am."
It was an unique experience being in a camp, as many of his fellow rookies had big dreams and were quite a bit younger. Hardway feels that his maturity gave him a more solid foundation.
"I was told from the start ‘I'll teach you but I won't make a guarantee, you may never make it onto a show.' Everyone was probably told that. I have seen guys go in and break an ankle on class two, for whatever reason. We've had guys who were hugely muscled but couldn't count to five, but because they have the look think it will be a piece of cake. It's a whole lot tougher than people think."
From there, Hardway debuted in January 1999 and began wrestling regularly for the promotion as a tag wrestler before branching out into singles matches. Starting off as ‘Private Todd Kelly,' his real name, it was ironic that he was given the military gimmick, being ex-military himself.
"I was given the whole military thing. I'm a serious guy when it comes to wrestling, I am not one for the fluff and the dramatics, I want to see wrestling. When I started my angle was that I was against Hardcore wrestling, because it's really gotten out of hand. You see backyard tapes all the time, and think 'That guy is going to be crippled in no time.'"
A wrestler using their real name is common these days, but still has certain risks, especially as a heel.
"There is some worry, depending on the character and how you portray yourself. I wondered about repercussions if I insulted someone in the ring and they took it out on me outside of the arena, that worried me somewhat but it's a hazard you live with."
It was in May 2002 that the name change to 'Major Hardway' came about.
"Some guys who are inexperienced think because they are larger they can do what they want, and a couple of those guys that night thought that would be the case. They both ended up needing stiches, although they didn't get them. I decided from that night on that I wasn't going to use my own name. The name came about from the term 'Major' in education. I had a bad habit of breaking guys open without wanting to do it, thus the 'Hardway' which is the term used in wrestling for bleeding unintentionally. It took some people awhile to realize how I came up with it, it just came to me one day."
For many wrestlers, lack of size makes it difficult to break out of independent companies. Often the complaint is heard 'that guy doesn't even look like a wrestler.' Hardway can see the point, and has worked hard to add on size.
"I weighed around 170 when I started and I have really worked hard to get my size up. I want to wrestle as a junior-heavyweight, the under 220-pound division. Right now I am at 195, which is perfect for me." Can lack of size can be frustrating at times? "Yes and no. It frustrates me but I understand it is part of the business. On the indy scene we don't have Television so we have a short time to tell our story and get fans into it, which is why there is so much more action."
Aside from winning the Pacific Cup, Hardway's biggest accomplishment in his career started on November 29, 2002 when he defeated Disco Fury for the NWA Canadian Junior Heavyweight Championship. He would go on to hold the title for 15 months, a rarity these days. It causes some fans to recall the lengthy run of Rob Van Dam as ECW Television Champion.
"He had a 23-month reign, which is incredible. For a company to have you as it's flagship, to have the faith in you to carry the ball for that amount of time is putting a lot on your shoulders. I am blessed that I held onto the belt for an almost unheard of length of time for title reigns these days."
Those seeing Hardway wrestle for the first time are often surprised, as the "Junior Heavyweight" term to many indicates a style that uses mostly high flying.
"My being in my 30s equals way easier to break," he joked. "The guys who want to go out and fly, that's great, all the better for them. As you get older you do lose a step athletically, so you make up for that in the wisdom and knowledge you have gained. I've learned something from everyone who has been in ECCW."
Instead of taking to the air, Hardway wrestles a style reminiscent of wrestlers like American Dragon and Dean Malenko.
"The snugness of my style compensates for it. People are on the edge of their seats saying 'Jesus, they are making good contact there.' I am crisp as possible, and do a lot of suplexes and high impact moves which makes up for the lack of flying. I guess I would define myself as a 'technical brawler,' The catch as catch can style of the old days, where you could trade hold for hold with someone and have a lot of time. I haven't had the chance to get out there and go for thirty minutes, move for move. Hopefully I can get that chance."
It's a style that many wrestlers and fans see wrestling heading back towards, with emphasis on holds, moves, and telling a story in the ring.
"I see a swing starting to happen back towards focusing on wrestling, and I hope it continues that way. I am open in my dislike of the 'hardcore' style; you don't need to hit a guy 20 times with a chair. If you do that, what do you have to do the next time? You end up putting yourself out of business because you can't top that."
Hardway is a student of the game, and has taken advantage of every opportunity to learn. During his time with the company, Canadian veterans like Kurrgan, Juggernaut, Black Dragon and Dr. Luther, as well as many others have worked within the company. As well, ECCW has had stars like Tommy Dreamer, Steve Corino and Sabu do shows.
"When those guys come in, they are brought in to headline shows. As a rookie I knew my place was to give them a wide berth, just to watch and learn. You can ask them questions they are great for that but I didn't harass them. You have to be careful what you ask you don't want to sound stupid, so I just kept my eyes and ears open," he said, adding this advice to anyone breaking in. "Knowing when to bite your tongue is the best advice I could ever give anyone."
Every wrestler has dream matches, and Hardway is no exception. He would love the chance to square off against some of the best on the independent scene.
"I would love a chance to wrestle Christopher Daniels. My style and his are very similar although he does more flying. Low Ki would be a guy I would like to get in the ring with. I would love to have faced Dean Malenko. Tony Kozina, I could wrestle him again and again and again. Being able to wrestle former Junior Champions is an accomplishment. Tony was looked upon as one of the best in the world by everyone except New York, the first time we wrestled I was nervous."
It was Kozina who ended Hardway's championship reign on April 2, 2004 in Surrey.
"It was an awesome match. Out of all my title defenses, that was probably the greatest. I feel no shame knowing it was a former World Junior champion that bested me."
Hardway then paused to reflect on his run.
"Now that I am no longer the champion, I can say I steamrolled through the first few months. Being the champion and being allowed to showcase your abilities is an unbelievable feeling. I will say I have never had the opportunity to really feud with someone and truly show my full potential and ring generalship. I look forward to doing so when the opportunity arises. As for what's next for Major Hardway? Who knows, I have alot of ideas. I'm still looking for a match with Christopher Daniels. And if I have to, I will crabwalk across the globe to get a World Jr. title match."
It is difficult for Canadians to break out into other promotions. The cost of travel between the U.S. and Canada as well as the plethora of talent within the U.S. makes it difficult for many to get a break. Even working within Canada is difficult as promotions are so spread out across the country. With wrestling as a whole not at a peak currently, promoters aren't always paying what the wrestlers are worth. It can be especially difficult when you have a family, like Hardway, whose wife and two-year-old son are his top priority.
"I have a family, if you take a day off work, that is one day less pay, to go and work for $20, it's not worthwhile. I understand that you have to pay your dues, but at the same time people have to realize that you have to get from point A to point B. Twenty dollars doesn't get you far. I would really like it if promoters were willing to work together a bit more and share in the costs of bringing in talent that would be fantastic. I was offered a chance to go to the Maritimes right after I won the title. My son had just been born so I had to turn the trip down. I would like the opportunity to go out on tour and see how I test up against talent in other locations."
Now well established in his career, Hardway is eager to share his knowledge with those coming up through the ranks, as well as continue his learning himself. Juggernaut has called Hardway ‘The Most the technically sound guy in ECCW.' It's a compliment not to be taken lightly and Hardway is appreciative.
"Wow, that is a great compliment. A lot of guys out here are working hard and getting better all the time, so I don't take anything away from anyone else in the promotion. The further on you are in your career you give a hand to the new guys. Being able to say I am at a certain level, I scrutinze my tapes afterwards like crazy trying to learn what I could do better, and how can I help others in the promotion. Things don't bother me as much if they don't go well, wherease as a rookie you take things more personally and it has to be about you. People get lost in that. A show is not about just one guy, even when you see it on TV, there are a lot of people who make up those shows. That is something important to remember."
For more on Major Hardway and upcoming ECCW events visit www.eccw.com.
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Jason Clevett is from Calgary, Alberta. He can be reached at j_Clevett@hotmail.com.