May 5, 2012
Devon Nicholson attempts to put a tough few years behind him
By JAN MURPHY - Kingston Whig-Standard
If not for a life-altering, and unfortunate if not tragic string of events, Ottawa wrestler-turned-promoter Devon Nicholson might be plodding along at his dream job, working for WWE Inc.
"I'd be in my, almost my fourth year of WWE by now if my contract had gone through and onto a lot bigger and better things," Nicholson told me over the phone this week. "But unfortunately ... "
Nicholson, who throughout his career was known in the ring as Hannibal, was poised to sign with the pro wrestling giant a couple of years back before a blood test revealed he had the blood infection known as hepatitis C.
Long story short, Nicholson figures he was infected during a bloody encounter with WWE Hall of Famer Abdullah the Butcher, long known for his bloody matches.
Nicholson filed lawsuit against Butcher, and another later against WWE, both of which remain unresolved to this day.
Along the way, Nicholson underwent unsuccessful treatment for his disease, battled bouts of depression, suicidal thoughts, picked himself up, retired from pro wrestling, earned a spot as an Olympic alternate in Greco Roman amateur wrestling and started up his own pro wrestling company.
To say the least, Nicholson has seen his share of ups and downs in the last few years.
His biggest battles came with his treatments. Six months of medication took their toll on the 29-year-old.
"I went through six months of treatment. It had horrible side effects. I lost 45 pounds, I had to go on anti-depressants, I had to see a psychologist. It was awful. I was only sleeping about two hours a night and everywhere I look -- I work out and stuff -- everyone's like, 'Oh, just stop working out, you look sick.' So it wasn't pleasant."
Until recently, hepatitis C was typically treated with a combination of peginterferon and ribavirin. A newer treatment, which adds Incivek to the mix, has been approved but Nicholson is not yet being treated with it.
Nicholson thought after undergoing the first treatment that he had beaten the disease.
"The most devastating thing about having hepatitis C so far was when I thought I was cured -- I'd gone through that terrible treatment, suffered all the side effects, lost all the weight, then I was gaining it all back, my depression and anxiety were going away, I was confident that I would be able to get back to normal, then I walked into that office six months after the treatments," he said. "I should have known something was up when the psychologist was sitting in the doctor's chair, but I was so happy I was just going off to the psychologist about how excited I was and all of my plans and then the doctor came in and basically said it's back and we're not going to put you on the old treatment again because it didn't work the first time so you have to wait for the new thing to come out.
That was a date he'll not soon forget.
"I remember it well, it was July 13, 2010, and we're almost two years later and I still haven't been put on the new treatment."
When Global TV approached him about doing a segment on his career and his battle with hep C, Nicholson decided it was time to hang up his wrestling tights.
"I decided I wasn't enjoying being a pro wrestler anymore because it just depressed me because every time I wrestled, all I'd think about was, 'I shouldn't be on independent shows, I should be in the WWE.' People would come watch my matches and come up to me after saying, 'You don't belong here.' It was depressing me. When I found out Global was going to do a documentary on me, I figured, 'What better time to retire from pro wrestling? I'm not enjoying it anymore.' How many wrestlers can say they have a documentary on themselves that airs all over the country to end their career?
"So I decided that my match on that, at that time it was Oct. 8 in Renfrew, Ont., would be my last match. I was legitmately very depressed at that time. I really felt like killing myself, I'll be honest."
The fighter in him would have nothing to do with such thoughts. Immediately following his retirement from pro wrestling, he made the decision to turn back the clock.
"Pretty much the next day, I'm like, 'OK, the Olympic trials are in December in Winnipeg, I've got two and a half months to train. I can't sit around being upset and depressed all the time. I've got to do something positive.' I looked at the tournament schedule, I saw there were three or four warmup tournaments for me to do and I decided that I was going to focus on getting back into amateur wrestling. I knew that to do well in amateur wrestling, you have to train really hard. It would at least give me something to focus on that wouldnt' have me thinking about pro wrestling.
"I trained constantly."
That training helped him climb all the way to the Olympic trials, where he earned a spot as the alternate for the Summer Games that take place in London, England, later this year.
"I didn't expect to do that well," he admitted. "I had been out of the sport for 10 years."
What he also didn't expect was the emotional lift the experience gave him.
"What that did was bring my confidence back. It made me realize my life isn't over if I can't get in WWE and there's lots of other stuff I can do."
Together they formed Hannibal Pro Wrestling, which has given Nicholson a new life when it comes to the industry he has loved for as long as he can remember.
"I love pro wrestling," he said. "It's been my passion ever since I could talk. I started putting on shows in my backyard when I was six. I don't watch other sports. I love wrestling. I read all the wrestling books, I talk about wrestling all the time and I think about it 24 hours a day.
Thanks to his latest venture, not all of his thoughts will be along the "what could have been" line of thinking.
"I've always been a good promoter, I've promoted actually the highest-attended non-WWE shows in Canada," Nicholson said, adding he was trained in the famous Hart Family Dungeon. The Hart family also helped him cut his promoting teeth with Stampede Wrestling.
"I was making $20 to wrestle in those days, sometimes driving six hours in a snowstorm, setting up and taking down the ring, getting my butt kicked in a match," he said. "When I started promoting, instead of making $20, if my shows went well, sometimes I would make $300 or $400, which wasn't huge money, but I was getting more respect in promoting."
Now that he's promoting, and not wrestling, he's more clearly able to focus on the task at hand, too.
"I feel the one drawback and the one bad thing I've had about my events in the past is I've always been focused on trying to have the best match on the card," he said. "I couldn't fully concentrate on making sure the other matches were good or the show ran 100% smoothly because I was thinking always about my match in the back of my head."
And while his WWE dreams have been washed away, Nicholson said he is content to help others chase their dreams.
"I figure maybe I can just help people," he says. "There are a lot of wrestlers that aren't trained very well out here. (I can) help teach them a lot of the stuff I've learned and I still get to be a part of this business that I love so much."
Wrestling fans in the region will have the chance to see Nicholson's promotional skills first hand, tonight. HPW comes to Smiths Falls at the Smiths Falls Community Memorial Centre, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15 each or four for $40.
The event features former WWE superstar Scott Steiner, Poffo, as well as Jeremy Prophet, Thirsty Domino, The Prodigy Nathan Banner and Kingston's Roy Yetman. If you haven't yet heard of him, you will, Nicholson says.
"He had a weird gimmick called The Roy Toy and he was kind of an exotic dancer type gimmick," Nicholson says of Yetman when he met him. "I've made him into what he really is, an army character. He's now Commander Roy Sniper. We started having him do those characters last year and the fans absolutely love him now. He's really embraced that character."
Nicholson hopes to use his promotion to put some of the mystique back into pro wrestling, to make it fun again, much as it was in the 1980s.
"We don't want to see behind the curtain, we want to get lost in it," he said.
As he attempts to help fans get lost in the industry again, at some point he faces more treatment for his disease. And while he's still in fantastic shape (certainly competing for a spot at the Olympics is an indication of that), he knows his health must be dealt with, sooner rather than later.
"My liver enzymes are high, my spleen is enlarged," he said. "I mean if I don't get cured in the next five or six years, I'm going to need a liver transplant."
Above all else, his experiences over the last number of years have put things into perspective for him.
"I don't want to be known for all of this stuff," he said, referring to his ailment and the lawsuits.
As the legal matters work their way through the system, Devon Nicholson will work his way through the next chapter in his career.
Jan Murphy is the news editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard and has written about wrestling for 15 years.