Matt Striker: Wrestling with destiny
JAN MURPHY - Chinlock.com
Matt Striker believes in fate.
It was fate, he says, that led to his introduction to pro wrestling as a young boy.
"My parents got divorced when I was young, so I spent my weekends with my father and during the week I spent with my mother," Striker recalled during a telephone interview to promote his coming appearance at Tommy Dreamer's House of Hardcore 3. "They lived around the corner from each other so it was essentially very easy."
It was during one fateful visit with his father, a man whom Striker idolized, that the impressionable youngster got his first glimpse of the business that he would one day thrive in.
"I was seven years old," Striker recalled, "it was raining on a Saturday in New York ... October/Novemberish ... and my dad was going to take my sister and I to a movie. Before the movie, my dad said, 'Hey, do you want to see someone fly?' What seven-year-old is going to say no to this?" he said with a slight chuckle. "My father put on the television and Superfly Jimmy Snuka was on TV and I guess, judging by the look on my face, we didn't go to the movie that day."
Instead, Striker's father would, unwittingly, alter the course of his young son's life forever.
"We sat down and we watched wrestling and my father spent the next few hours telling me, word of mouth ... tales and stories of wrestlers from his childhood and how he and his father bonded and it was better than any movie would have ever been."
It didn't end there, however.
"That Monday, my father showed up at my mother's house, which was special in and of itself because he was only allowed to see us on the weekends, and he gave me three wrestling magazines, which I still have to this day.
"Looking back on it, my father knew it would foster reading in a seven-year-old ... it would help me to read and to have an imagination ... and I just became completely immersed in everything that was pro wrestling."
That fateful rainy day, that impromptu wrestling history lesson and those magazines were only the beginning of the bond between that boy and his idol.
"From there, my father and I bonded greatly over wrestling," Striker said. "He started taking me to Madison Square Garden every month. They used to run on Monday nights, so it was a treat because I got to be with my best friend in the world on a Monday, after school go to Madison Square Garden, Tuesday morning I'd go into school and give everyone the results ... I was like a living, breathing early version of the Internet for my classmates. I'd give them all the dirt and show them all the pictures. That's where the foundation of my love of professional wrestling came from. It was an extension of my relationship with my father and it just blossomed from there."
Surprisingly, it was another sport that consumed much of Striker's life as he left childhood and entered his teenage years.
"I played hockey," he said, even declaring himself a closet Canadian at one point during the interview. "I was one of the few New York kids that played hockey. I went pretty far as far New York goes. I played Apple Core (junior hockey), we would travel up to Sault Ste. Marie for tournaments and things like that. That's where I thought I was going. I really thought I was going to go and be a hockey player."
That is, until fate intervened.
"I was in a gym working out, I was wearing a wrestling T-shirt -- I think it might have been an ECW T-shirt -- and across the gym I spotted another guy wearing a wrestling T-shirt," Striker said. "This was at the time when merchandising didn't saturate the market. (If you saw someone wearing a) wrestling T-shirt, you'd stop and actually say 'hey, you like this? So do I.' We started talking and he came into the gym a couple of days later with a very crude printout, in the infancy of the Internet."
That printout contained the names of several wrestling schools in the area.
"I didn't know you could learn how to be a wrestler," Striker recalled. "It was a very closed brethren."
As Striker perused that list, one name jumped out at him.
"I remembered my father would always tell me that his father used to take his shoe off and throw it at the TV any time Johnny Rodz would be on the screen," Striker said. "Johnny Rodz. I'm looking at this list of wrestling schools and lo and behold, Johnny Rodz's wrestling school is on this list."
"I believe in God and I believe in destiny and you didn't need to hit me over the head to see that that was a sign. So I went to Johnny Rodz's wrestling school and that's where it all began."
Under the tutelage of the legendary wrestler and trainer, Striker would hone his skills.
"I learned how to referee, I learned how to set up the ring, and then I learned the ins and outs of what it is to be a wrestler, but not before I got my butt handed to me night in and night out."
That's OK, he could take it.
"Playing hockey, that was second nature ... when they knock you down with a tackle, just get right back up. They would marvel at the fact that this skinny little blue-eyed kid keeps getting up. The passion was there and the rest is history."
Striker would approach his wrestling career just as he did when his dad turned on the television all those years ago, with his eyes and ears wide open. In fact, in just his first year as a wrestler, he would capture an unthinkable 10 championships, a feat he credits to his approach.
"I only had my organized sports background to base things off of ... everything is relative," he said. "In hockey, if you can skate, and you can score and you can make plays, you're going to play. If you can produce, you're going to play.
"In wrestling, though, I began to realize very quickly that even if you're good, that doesn't mean you're going to get booked ... there were a lot of politics, there were a lot of things that were going on that you needed to be a part of and I was never, and still am not, any good at playing that game. I wear my heart on my sleeve, I say what I feel and I'm honest. In a world where so many aren't, honesty is so refreshing."
Titles and accolades were not what were important to the budding wrestler. Respect was much more important.
"I was just that guy that would say to a promoter, 'Whatever you'd like me to do I'll do ... good guy, bad guy, win, lose ...' I never said, 'Well, I don't think my character would lose to Santa Claus.' Nah, whatever you want. And I think that word spread to promoters that this young guy was just here to make the show better. And after everyone would alienate themselves with their politicking, the only person left was me so I think that's why they said, 'You know what, you'll win tonight, you'll be the champion' ... 'Oh you're coming back next month and you don't mind losing to a girl' ... That's how you build trust, and you build honesty and you build a reputation. And I love losing to girls by the way," he added.
As Striker built his wrestling career, his father, his hero, would again guide his son, advising him to get an education.
"The reoccurring thread throughout my life is going to be my dad," Striker said. "My dad grew up in the Bronx in New York, in a very tough neighbourhood, and nothing was ever handed to him. He had to go to work early. Thank God he made quite a living and supported three marriages and five children based on going to work everyday. He always said, 'I don't want you to have to do this. Get a degree. Get a piece of paper so you can always eat, so that you never have to worry, never have to rely on anyone else ... you can always go out and a get a job.' That was his big thing."
Striker's father also figured his son would end up a hockey star somewhere, but wisely urged him to pursue a teaching degree in the event he were to suffer a serious or career-ending injury.
"I did and I pursued a social studies degree," Striker said. "I became enamored with why one child learns differently than another, so I got my master's degree in educational psychology. That's really helped me a lot in life and in wrestling because just because you receive information one way, and process it and apply it, I can read the same exact text and not get the same information. Some people learn spatially, some people learn visually, some people learn hands-on, and I was fascinated by that."
Striker would go on to become, not surprisingly, a successful teacher.
"I chose to teach secondary (education), which is seventh through 12th grades here in the (United) States, which are older kids, starting at 13 and going up to 18, because you can convey advanced concepts to a 16-year-old a little easier than you can to an 11-year-old ..."
For example, Striker said, with an 11-year-old, you would have to say "'Hitler and the bad Germans marched into Russia ...' I don't want to do that, but to a 17-year-old, I can relate Hitler and Germans to Darth Vader and the Imperials or whatever the kids were into at the time and create colourful images in their mind ... manipulate their psychology."
Coincidentally, Striker said, the approach in wrestling is similar.
"If I wanted the crowd to boo me and believe that I was a real son of a B, I can just call on the same tactics and things that I would use in the classroom. I remember when I got to WWE, they threw me out on a live event and they put a microphone in my hand and they said -- it was so funny, it was Dean Malenko -- 'Now just go out there and take your time and hopefully the people will respond.' But he didn't know that I'd been talking in front of people for however many years as a teacher. I went out in front of the crowd and they started booing for no reason and I took a very old teacher technique, which pisses people off, where you just go 'I'll wait.' I used to hate when my teachers would do that. What does that do? It makes the class even more rowdy. When I said to the arena of 17,000 'I'll wait,' boy did they keep coming and for three minutes I didn't have to say a word. That is just psychology."
Striker was settled into a very comfortable and successful teacher career, while wrestling on the side, when fate would again intervene when he was dismissed from his teaching position for inappropriately using sick days to travel overseas for wrestling gigs.
"Bright as people like to think I am, I never read my teachers' contract," Striker said. "I just signed it and went to work. You are allotted sick days and you are allotted personal days. I never bothered to look at the two, so when I would call in or have someone call in to say that I wasn't coming into work because I was going to Japan, they would ask on the other end, or just assume, 'Oh, he must be sick,' and they would mark it down as a sick day. If I had said, 'I'm taking a personal day,' I probably wouldn't be talking to your right now. Again, it goes back to the fact that I believe that destiny works its way in a divine manner and that was all part of the plan. The fact that I was ignorant or naive to the semantics of the personal days and the sick days, was actually meant to be."
Striker openly admits wrongdoing, but doesn't buy the theory that the improper usage of personal days was the lone reason for his dismissal.
"There was one student who was an avid wrestling fan who followed my career, and the buzz (spread through) the school. I actually used it to my advantage because kids started to enroll in my class because they wanted to get taught by the wrestler," Striker said. "But the chairwoman of the socials studies department was a curmudgeonly old lady who went on a witch hunt and wanted to get me out and used that as her leverage to try to push me out of the system."
Striker also points out that his case was not unique.
"This type of thing happens all the time," he said. "There was a similar story where there was a professional violinist, a lady, who used her sick days to go and tour with the Philharmonic, and there was never any backlash to that. It was actually applauded and I think it got (her) a music position at a school.
"I do think that the pro wrestling stigma and running around, oiled up in tights, kicking people in the face (didn't) help. But the fact that my direct superior, my social studies chairwoman, was not a fan of me or my teaching practices at all -- a lot of students started transferring out of her class to go into mine -- 'Oh, he's doing that wrestling, that's a bad example.' Like you said, if I was doing a peacekeeping mission in Haiti, I don't know if it would've turned up."
To this day, Striker remains a licensed teacher.
As the door to his teacher career closed, the door to his wrestling career would burst wide open.
Striker would forge ahead into a successful pro wrestling career that continues to this day, and which included an eight-year run with World Wrestling Entertainment, the granddaddy of 'em all, as they say.
There, the early part of Striker's career was spent mostly as an in-ring talent, while the latter part saw him work as a commentator and on the sidelines.
For Striker, it mattered not what WWE wanted him to do. Fate had brought his childhood dream to life and he was just happy to be there.
Matt Striker with William Regal in September 2011 in Toronto. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea
"I approached whatever position the WWE came to me with with the same motivation and direction that I did with anything else," he said. "And learning those lessons early on was crucial. 'What would you like me to do?' 'How would you like me to do it?' And that was the end of the questions I would ask. So many guys would say, 'Well, you know I don't think I should lose.' Dude, shut up. Just go out there and do what you're supposed to do. Honestly, they did not pay to see Matt Striker, they paid to see John Cena
, so when the time came for me to wrestle John Cena, go out there and let John Cena beat the tar out of you because that's what they came to see.
"And if you do that well, you'll do that every night and the cheques will come every single week. If you don't do that well, you will not get that opportunity. So wrestling ... what would you like me to? OK, thank you, I will get out of your hair now because you have other things to deal with.' 'Commentary, what's the story, who are we pushing, what would you like me to do, what's the product placement? Thank you very much, I will leave you alone now.' They have enough headaches. Anyone that's in a relationship that's reading this or hearing this ... the last thing you need is another headache. It's always that person that just kind of comes in and does their job and leaves that you appreciate in the end."
Much to Striker's dismay, and to the dismay of many others, WWE elected not to renew Striker's contract earlier this year. For someone so selfless and low maintenance, it was an odd decision, one that caught even the man himself off guard.
"I have my theories," he said when asked about his dismissal. "I do believe that there were politics. I do believe that there were certain people that perhaps saw me as a threat. I'm sure there were some business reasons, financials, but I can admit now I would have taken a severe pay cut and swept the floors if they asked me to. But I don't know. I know that there were a lot of new personnel coming into WWE, non-wrestling people were starting to make wrestling decisions and maybe it was just a black and red kind of thing, which is profits and losses. Maybe they just looked at the numbers and said let's free up some money to go in a different direction. That's one thing I can't figure out, but I'm not going to drive myself crazy trying to figure it out. I just hope that enough people will start asking the question, 'What the hell was that?' and my phone will ring and they'll say come on back."
Jonathan Coachman and Matt Striker at a THQ event in Detroit at WrestleMania 23. Photo by Mike Mastrandrea
Working in the WWE was clearly an honour and something Striker can be proud of for the rest of his life, but it paled in comparison to wrestling in front of his hero, his late father, who passed away five years ago.
"He was proud. He would tell everyone, whether they asked or not, he'd find ways to work it into conversations with pure strangers," said the proud son. "His only concern was that I didn't get hurt. He'd sit front row at times and give me a thumbs up. He was my best friend, my biggest fan and my inspiration. I always 'see him' before I walk through the curtains," an emotional Striker said, adding that he took his grandfather's name for his first match as an homage to the connection that wrestling had for him, his father and his grandfather.
Not surprisingly, fate has again found Matt Striker. With his release from WWE, he is free to appear with other companies. Enter Striker's close friend and the man behind House of Hardcore, Tommy Dreamer, who has added Striker to his star-studded House of Hardcore 3 lineup on Nov. 9 in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Striker and Dreamer are kindred spirits of sorts.
"Tommy and I were trained by the same person so I always felt a kinship and also a responsibility to carry the flag of Johnny Rodz's wrestling school," Striker said when asked about his relationship with Dreamer. "Johnny Rodz has produced guys like Tommy Dreamer, like Taz, like Devon Dudley, Bill DeMott, Big Vito ... all these names have really made an impact on the wrestling landscape and the last guy to come out of Johnny Rodz's school was Matt Striker and I always felt like you're trying to live up to your big brother's legacy when you go to his high school four or five years later."
Striker said it wasn't always all roses between he and the man he now calls his best friend.
"In the beginning, Tommy and I did not get along at all," he said. "We used to have matches and we would legitimately punch each other in the face," he said, adding that "maybe I'm talking out of turn, maybe Tommy did like me, but I always got the impression he didn't."
None of that matters now, as the two share an incredible and unbreakable bond.
"From that intensity, from that passion and from that common lineage, Tommy Dreamer has now become probably the most important person in my professional and personal career," Striker said. "Tommy has taken on a role at times of a big brother, at time of a best friend and even at times I'd go to Tom for fatherly advice, too. My dad passed away five years ago and he was my best friend in the world, and Tommy has really filled that void as much as someone can," he said, adding that the two are so much alike that "I can make a reference and no one in the room will get it except for Tom."
Striker said Dreamer's contribution to wrestling cannot be overlooked.
"He has changed this business, not once but twice," Striker said. "And that's a bold statement and if you let that statement sink in ... Tommy Dreamer's vision and dedication and passion has helped to change the landscape of a business that has been rooted in habit for the last hundred years. Vince McMahon has done great, great things to take this business into a totally different direction, but there's still a large portion of the population that longs for the actual wrestling ... the fact that grabbing an arm bar means something and why does this hurt and how is this guy trying to get out of this hold? That void that was created, Tommy had the wherewithal to see that and capitalize and I think that's what House of Hardcore provides for fans. Yes, it's OK to love WWE, yes it's OK to love sports entertainment, but if there's a part of you that longs for wrestling, it still says wrestling on the marquee outside, that's what House of Hardcore will give you. It will remind you of why you fell in love with this all in the first place. It wipes away all the gook and all the gunk. You take a girl's makeup off, and sometimes she's even prettier in just sweatpants, no makeup and her hair pulled up. That's what House of Hardcore is."
Asked what being a part of Dreamer's coming show means to him, the conversation again turns personal and very emotional.
"From a personal standpoint, it validates me," Striker said, he voice cracking. "It validates that that little kid who was seven years old in that living room in Queens, New York, all those years ago, to walk out now, put on a pair of wrestling boots and go and do what he fell in love with. I might start getting choked up here, but every time I go the ring, every time I wrestle, I'm that little kid listening to the stories my dad told me. And when I can go out there, maybe there's a dad in the crowd that can tell a story to his son and maybe a relationship can be borne between a father and son that was like the relationship that I had with my father. To walk out in the Mid-Hudson Civic Center, which is up here in the northeast where I am in the New York area, it is and it should be a historical landmark because so many great events have occurred there -- to have the opportunity to walk out there, and it doesn't matter what I'm doing, I can wrestle a midget and lose, I can wrestle Rosita and she can pin me any time because she's the most beautiful woman on the face of the planet, and it won't matter because I'm a part of something that I've been emotionally invested in. It's an honour and it validates me."
House of Hardcore 3
Mid-Hudson Civic Center, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Saturday, Nov. 9, 7:30 p.m.
Tommy Dreamer, Terry Funk, Lance Storm, Dustin Rhodes, Matt Hardy, Matt Striker, Sean (X-Pac) Waltman, Lisa Marie, Rhino, Kevin Steen, Devon, Stevie Richards and others.
It also gives Striker the chance to watch Dreamer in his element.
"It also brings me great pride to watch my mentor, my teacher, my friend, my brother, Tommy Dreamer have full control of something that he loves -- if there's anyone that loves wrestling more than me, it's Tommy. He's such a unique individual. He's a rare breed. (I get to) watch him helping guys, watch him with camera cues, production, lights on, lights off, music now, no wait, here we go. All those little things matter. And the fact that I get to watch and still learn from someone who I respect so much on one hand and on the other hand is my best buddy, it's humbling. So many times people get complacent in a business after awhile, no matter whether you push a pencil or you're a wrestler, you can get complacent after a while -- 'Ah, I've been doing this for 15 years,' 'Ah, let me go do my thing' -- no. It intrigues me and it inspires me and it galvanizes me and I'm actually speechless for the opportunity to participate in House of Hardcore.
Fate works in mysterious ways.
Matt Striker bio and story archive
Jan Murphy is the news editor at the Kingston Whig-Standard and has written about wrestling for 15 years. He recently launched Chinlock.com to archive his wrestling stories, and this is his first original interview for it. You can follow Jan on Twitter at @Jan_Murphy.