April 16, 2011
How Hep C derailed Devon Nicholson's WWE deal
By TIM BAINES - Ottawa Sun
The phone call hit Devon Nicholson like a folding chair to the side of the head.
Bleary-eyed and behind the wheel of his green 1997 Toyota Tercel, he had just completed a 15-hour drive from Ottawa to Edmundston, N.B., where he was putting up posters for a future wrestling show, the first week of September in 2009.
Two months after shocking news that Nicholson had tested positive for Hepatitis C, the voice on the other end of the cellphone told him a three-year WWE contract offer had been yanked off the table.
Wrestling opportunity aside, there was also the real possibility he could die. But he didn't care so much about that.
It was the sudden stop to his journey, a wild ride that had seen him spill litres of blood and wrestle on urine-soaked floors ... a roller coaster ride that left him more than $100,000 in debt at one point.
"I was devastated," said Nicholson. "My dreams were crushed. I had driven all night to New Brunswick. I was putting up posters for a tour a month later and I still had two more towns to poster.
"It was the longest ride home ever. But it's not like I could have slept anyway with that hanging over my head.
"If I had one day, one year in WWE, if I could accomplish my dream, and if died the next day, I wouldn't care. I would rather do that than live until I'm 75 and never get that chance."
For 20-something years, Nicholson had dreamed of being in the spotlight of professional wrestling.
He had stepped into the ring in front of as many as 18,000, as few as 40.
"One time, wrestling in Puerto Rico, I walked in and there was a massive dead bird decaying in the middle of the dressing room. It was very hot and the room reeked," said Nicholson. "Another time, in Alberta, on an Indian reserve, there were dirty diapers in the shower and horse piss all over the gym floor. It was horrible."
He had competed against men in wrestling tights with names like The HonkyTonk Man, Abdullah the Butcher, Psycho Sid, Abyss, Brutus "The Barber" Beefcake, Kevin Nash, Terry Funk, Eugene and Heidenreich.
He needed 52 stitches to stop the bleeding when a coffee pot, swung by Abdullah the Butcher, shattered when it struck his face.
"The paramedics were going to stop the match," said Nicholson. "When I got hit, it felt like somebody was burning my face with a blowtorch."
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A two-time Ottawa high school wresting champ while at Cairine Wilson (with not even a single point scored on him in 2001), his destiny began to unfold not long after he learned to walk.
"This was all I ever wanted to do," said Nicholson who fancied himself as being the next Randy "Macho Man" Savage, Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair. "I don't watch other sports. Wrestling figures were the only toys I ever played with. I have more than 500 wrestling action figures. My whole life involved when the next event was coming to town.
"I promoted my first shows in my backyard when I was seven. I gave up (amateur wrestling) scholarships to Simon Fraser and the University of Buffalo to move to the (Hart Family) dungeon in Calgary. I just wanted to be a pro wrestler."
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"The first WWE doctor said because of their no-blood policy, it wouldn't be a problem," said Nicholson. "The second doctor thought it might be a problem. And Joe Maroon called me a week after the tests. My liver enzymes were high and he told me I had Hep C for sure. I asked if I would still get hired and he said it was unlikely. They said it wasn't a medical issue, it was a licensing issue. I couldn't be licensed to wrestle in certain states."
He says he got Hep C from one of his bloody in-ring encounters.
"I was going crazy trying to figure out how I caught this. I've never put a needle into myself, I have no piercings, no tattoos, no blood transfers. I passed all my drug tests in amateur wrestling and WWE. (To get Hep C), you almost have to somebody to bleed directly into your wound or get something jammed into you. A promoter will offer you $20 if you bleed. I don't need blood matches, I'm a good wrestler."
He was approved for treatment and remained hopeful he would beat the disease.
He started treatment, taking Interferon and Ribavirin, supposed to go through a 24-week cycle.
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"At that point, I went to one of the bathrooms and burst out crying. It was tough. It really sunk in for me. I was hurt. I didn't understand why. TJ (Tyson Kidd) and Harry (David Hart Smith), who I started out with, were on the card, and I was doing security."
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Months later, well along into his treatment, Nicholson was a mess.
"The doctor thought since this had been caught early, I had a good chance to be cured," he said. "After 19 weeks, I had lost 35 pounds, I had broken out in a rash. It was terrible. I was not the same Devon.
"I was disoriented and dizzy. I had tingling in my arms. I had a hard time remembering things."
He had to start seeing a psychologist and went off the treatment for six months.
"I was so confident that I would test negative that I had Wreck MMA schedule a fight for me in August," he said. "My plan was to get licensed for an MMA fight. Then, I would get the wrestling licence. July 13 was my six-month checkup. I should have guessed something was up when I walked into the doctor's office and my psychologist was there. That was when I really broke down. I had been on the biggest high ever and then I was thinking it's finally all over."
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After all, this is wrestling, a travelling circus that is as much entertainment as it is athleticism. It is all about storylines. Where one week on TV you can see a wrestler attempt to have sex with a corpse. Another week, a company owner could appear to be blown up in a car bombing. Very little seems sacred.
"This isn't a work," said Nicholson. "This isn't a wrestling storyline. Why would I make this up? Wrestling is considered entertainment, but there are a lot of real-life elements to it. The line is blurred. Stuff like this happens, but this is 100% real."
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Nicholson wrestles as a deranged character, Hannibal. In his mind, he would have been a big international star.
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With his WWE aspirations on the backburner, maybe for good, he works in the gym at the Ray Friel Centre 24 hours each week, putting in another 44 hours at a group home.
He's trying to stay positive.
He's got a match coming up in Thunder Bay on May 7th, against Tatanka.
He hasn't told his opponent about the Hep C.
* * *
"I have no time frame," he said. "My spleen is enlarged. I'm not on death's doorstep. There is no immediate danger. As long as I get new medication within five years, I'll be OK. But right now, it's attacking my liver and it can lead to liver cancer or cirrhosis.
With those words, Nicholson closes his eyes for a second. The wistful look is gone. The eyes now sparkle.
"I've been on a mission my whole life to get a job in WWE. And I have not given up that dream. If it's just a matter of me not having (Hep C), then hopefully they'll still be interested ...
"It is my destiny."
A destiny that can only be completed after a dangerous journey.
Tim Baines is the Sports Editor for the Ottawa Sun and can be emailed at Tim.email@example.com.