Muhammad Hassan's First Full Interview In Years: Heat In WWE, Leaving Wrestling, Trump, Hogan, More

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Marc Copani, who famously (or perhaps infamously) portrayed the controversial Muhammad Hassan gimmick in the WWE over a decade ago.

Many of you may remember the feature I did on Hassan weeks ago, Finding Muhammad Hassan: Reconnecting With One Of The Most Controversial WWE Stars Of A Generation. This was one of the many interviews conducted in preparation for the story, and it was Copani's first in years.]

You can also check out our full interview with Daivari at this link, and the Court Bauer and Shane Helms transcripts will be coming soon.

* * *

You portrayed a gimmick that was really controversial at the time, and now we have a guy like Donald Trump running for President who thrives on some of the things your character spoke out against in storyline. How do you feel about that?

"In 2005 when Shawn Daivari and I did the character, anti-Islamic feelings were relatively new in this country, there hadn't been many major terroristic threats or events that took place on United States soil with the exception of the World Trade Center attack in 2001. With someone like Donald Trump and everything that he's saying, ten years removed from 2005, ready for the anti-political correctness to come across the airwaves. I think that's why a lot of people are embracing Donald Trump. Back in 2005 it was relatively new. The World Trade Center attacks sparked this anti-Arab, anti-Islamic feelings. Now the United States has kind of settled into it. A lot of people are intrigued and impressed for lack of a better term about how ballsy Donald Trump is."

What were your thoughts when they pitched that gimmick to you?

"I liked it. I always had a feeling it could wind up bad. They prepared me as well as they could for what could and would happen, but nobody really was prepared for what did happen. My initial thoughts were that it was good heat. Jim Cornette was one of the guys who pitched it to me. He was right, it's sustainable heat. There was the Iron Sheik and xenophobic fears of people different in this country for a long time, but this was new and a fresh take on the Muslim, Arab gimmick. I thought it was cool, I was ready, I wanted to do it."

Your character was really protected to start out, too. Is that something that they tell you, that they're going to strap the rocket ship to your back?

"No, because I don't think that's anything they really know ahead of time. They may have in the back of their minds, like this is a character they can shoot to the moon, but you never know how it's going to come off to the fans. Nobody ever told me that. I was aware there would be a huge push, they push a lot of new characters out of the gate. As far as what happened, I was not really aware nor really prepared for it."

What was the reception like backstage? You were a young, new guy getting a big push. There had to be backlash.

"Yeah, there's backlash with really anybody new coming up. That's a part of the process. With a character like that that does start out hot, it's not usually from the top guys, it's from the midcard guys that you feel that heat from backstage. The top guys are kind of settled in, comfortable, their spots aren't going anywhere. It's the midcard guys that feel slighted and overlooked. There was plenty of backlash, and you learn to take it in stride. I think with this character at this particular time and this particular push, there was a lot more than you'd see typically. Some of that I'll put on myself as well. I was young, I was overconfident, and I didn't handle things they way I would now. There was a lot of heat associated on stage and off-stage with that gimmick."

There was a really controversial angle that got your character pulled from TV on the Independence Day Smackdown in 2005. Who tells you that you're going to be taken off TV?

"I think Johnny Ace told Shawn and I what was going on. I think at the time, initially, we were going to fight it. We were going to do publicity, talk shows, that promo in the ring, but eventually we realized if we fought it, we still weren't welcome on Spike, which was showing Raw at the time or UPN which was showing SmackDown. We knew we'd be very limited. I don't remember exactly how I found out, but within a few weeks of the Undertaker segment, we knew that character could not come back in that way to WWE TV."

A story was ran on saying yourself and Daivari would be reassigned to OVW. That didn't go down for you, why was that?

"I had just moved from Louisville maybe 8 months prior. We weren't assigned to OVW, it could have been an option. I was also made aware it'd be a while before I was called back up. I was told that explicitly. I guess nobody really knows, but at the same time, the character hit so quickly and hard that from what I gathered, it'd be kind of hard to spin that character into something that people could believe or get heat again. Ultimately, in my experience in that last year and what I had seen...I don't want to say I wouldn't have come back because I would have if something came up in the immediate future, but I realized I needed to move on from wrestling for my own good."

Has their ever been a desire to return, any offers to return from the WWE?

"Not from WWE. I've had plenty of offers from other organizations, but not from WWE. I would say that was more my choice than anything. Seeing what I saw my five years in wrestling personally, and I don't speak for everybody, was that wrestling was the kind of career that if you held on too long, you'd be 50 years old and you'd wonder where the last 25 years went. I made a decision that when I wasn't going to wrestle anymore, was that I wasn't going to wrestle anymore. Part of how I withdrew from that was the conscious decision to move on with my life, because I think it's very dangerous to spent your present focusing on your past and not your future."

Has WWE ever contacted you about WWE Network appearances or anything like that?

"No, I haven't been."

We'd heard rumors that maybe wrestling wasn't your true passion.

"It was at the time, it's definitely not now. I don't watch. I just don't have time to watch. At the time, it was my passion. I've moved on with my life. It takes a very special person to be like a Triple H, John Cena, Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton. Out of all the people who have wrestled, very few make it their lifelong career successfully. It was my passion at the time, but I have no problem saying I was not one of those people. I definitely was not the kind of person who could make wrestling a successful career for 25 years like The Undertaker or Kane or those guys."

There was also the Assassin and Son graphic novel you were doing with Shad Gaspard after your career, tell us a little about that.

"It was an original script Shad had written and given to me. At the time I was living in L.A., and that's kind of what I was doing. I was writing and re-writing scripts, nothing major. I re-wrote it and added and it became a different story. Shad is more actively pursuing that. Shad has been in films, I watched him the other night in Get Hard, he's a fantastically talented individual. I think now he's focused on his acting career. He put a lot of effort in getting Assassin and Son somewhat published. We were up and down, it was something I think he's pursuing in the future. We put it on hold because I have a different career and Shad's acting career is taking off. Shad's a great friend and a great guy, so I hope one day we can work together on this, whether it's as a graphic novel or a film, which is what our original focus was. For now, it's kind of been put on the back shelf. It's a timeless story, so whether we do it now or ten years from now, it's not going to change much of the screenplay."

Shane Helms told a story on an interview about you trying to make peace with some of the wrestlers you had heat with in Tokyo, but there was some refusal to it. What happened there?

"The story is that Eddie Guerrero used the Camel Clutch, which was my finisher. Kurt Angle, got in my ear and said 'Eddie shouldn't be using your finisher, it's disrespectful to the business.' Not to Eddie, nothing to to with Eddie it was like 'You shouldn't let someone use your finisher, you're a top guy, you have to say something.' This is Kurt Angle, so I do what he says. Lo and behold, it was Eddie's father who invented the Camel Clutch, so I felt like a gigantic asshole, and I got some heat for it in Tokyo. As far as making peace and it not working, I think I picked up a $2,000 bar tab, and that was kind of the last I heard of it. I'm not discrediting Shane's story, he may remember it differently than I do, but that was the heat I got. Ultimately, everyone knew it was Kurt who put me up to it. It doesn't mean I shouldn't have had the common sense not to listen, but I remember Big Show even made a comment like 'you're getting him in trouble again?' They knew the comment didn't come from me. I paid for it and tried to take it in stride. This is the first I'm hearing of Shane's story, so maybe he has a different take, I honestly don't know how to respond to that. I would have never dreamed in a million years to tell Eddie Guerrero not to do anything because Eddie was a God. I felt like I had to. I'm almost positive that Kurt said something to the effect of 'well, no one's gonna think you're a p—y...' (laughs). But it was like a wink, wink, everybody's going to think you're a p—y. I went to wrestler's court, and Undertaker and Shane McMahon were there, it was a pretty big deal, I was pretty nervous. Looking back, I think most people know it wasn't something I did on my own, it was something I was put up to by Kurt. Shane (Helms) is a good dude, I sure he remembers it the way he remembers it. I don't know who I was making peace with besides Eddie. We talked and hugged afterwards. I talked to Rey afterwards and I think they knew it wasn't coming from me. I would never disrespect Eddie Guerrero, the guy's a legend. I was 24, so I did what Kurt Angle told me to do."

That has to be one of the most ruthless ribs ever, knowing Eddie's temper.

"Well Eddie never lost his temper. He was very cool about it. I don't know if Kurt meant it as a rib, he might have. I was naive and 24. I remember my exact words were 'I'm not telling Eddie Guerrero not to do anything! It's Eddie Guerrero.' Well, they're going to think you're a p—y if you don't... Shawn Daivari always had a much better head on his shoulders when it came to wrestling than I did. Most of the time, he would be kind of my guidance, and he must not have been around in this situation. Shawn has been in the business since he was twelve, gifted talent and the wrestler. Looking back now, Shawn had the mind for it. He was very in tune to what should and shouldn't be done. Sometimes I would speak my mind when I shouldn't, and I would keep my mouth shut when I should speak my mind. It was a learning experience for me, and everything I've done since wrestling, I feel I've taken what I've learned in wrestling to my professional world in my next life. I'm appreciative of it. There are definitely things I wish I could have done over, at the same time it gave me a confidence and awareness that I wouldn't have had if I weren't in those situations at 24 years old."

Do you ever follow wrestling these days?

"I don't. Occasionally if I'm flipping through the channels, I'll see that New Japan has a show. I live in New York, so the affiliates will pick up some shows like Ring of Honor. I'll watch a little, and I'm always into it. Not that I was the best wrestler in the world or I'm an expert, but you watch and you critique and you're into it, but I haven't spent more than ten minutes in the last couple of years watching wrestling. It's a different product. Shawn Daivari said something that I appreciate, but I don't know that I agree with: He said that I'm the last of the Attitude generation. After Muhammad Hassan was taken off the air, within a short period of time, wrestling was geared more toward children and was family-friendly. I don't know if I agree or disagree, but it's cool to hear that because of how awesome that generation was for the WWE."

What you were saying as a character wasn't a lie. That type of behavior is rampant. Your character was so hated, but people knew this type of behavior towards Arabs was really happening. What kind of backlash would you get from fans when you were out?

"Psychologically speaking, we despise the traits in others that we see in ourselves. I think the Muhammad Hassan character put a mirror to your general American population and reminded them that even though we live in this liberal society that recognizes civil rights, we aren't exempt from prejudiced tendencies. The character itself did a great job in provoking that in people. By telling the truth that people would rather deny, they started to see that in themselves. The character built genuine heat, but it wasn't too long after I started the character that people started to appreciate that truth. That's one thing that I think is a trademark of a good heel is that they love to hate them. They don't hate. Most fans were really good, they were positive, and I loved interacting with most fans. A couple fans — and this is where we started to notice there might be trouble in other directions — when Muhammad Hassan was taken off the air, it wasn't push-back from white Americans, it was push-back from Arab-Americans who thought this character was a poor representation of them, which I can't disagree with. It was Arabs in general, I had a confrontation with in Australia. One saw me drinking at a bar and said "Muslims don't drink!' and I was sitting next to one in Shawn Daivari, and I was like 'well, yes they do.' You always are going to get assholes, that's inherent in the position."

You're 100 percent Italian, right? You could have wound up with a Jersey Shore gimmick.

"100 percent Italian from Syracuse, New York. It probably would have gotten as much heat a few years later."

The Hassan gimmick would never be considered today. Do you think they missed the boat by just writing the character off?

"I don't know. Yes and no. Did they miss the boat? They could have continued the character, they could have got a lot more heat for the character, but I think it came down to monetary. You're talking about sponsors pulling. After the London Bombings, if they would have continued the character the same way we'd been using it, I think that would have been a bad move. I think WWE and Vince recognized they were going to lose sponsors if they continued with this. It wasn't like the puppies, or Gene Snitsky punting a baby, it wasn't a storyline that was poor taste. Even though Muhammad Hassan wasn't a radicalized fundamentalist, it was a storyline that represented a group that killed innocent people. I think that if you step back and look at it about what is right to parody, and what is insensitive, it was becoming insensitive given the plight of the United States and Western Europe at this time and now. You could never do it now. It started to change in 2005 as terrorist attacks became more frequent in heavily populated areas, and hitting European countries, not just Syria and Iraq and Iran. Just like you couldn't do it now, when they pulled it I think we were heading into the time when this character and material was too insensitive to continue."

Ironically, you became a social studies teacher. You go from a social storyline to molding minds about situations like the one that got you kicked off TV.

"Yes. I've always been a history buff. I love social studies in general, whether it be sociology, psychology, economics, all of the social sciences, as well as education. Before I got into wrestling, education was something I was passionate about, just like I came about wrestling, but my passion for education continued. I talk global studies, ancient Islam and modern Islam, ancient Christianity and modern Christianity. How those subject areas have really clashed. We can trace back relations between western Europe and the middle east back to the crusade, and even further back if you know what to look for. Teaching history and a sense being a part of history, it's very rewarding. At the same time, I think one of the things that made the Hassan character so good was my knowledge of the past, politics, modern psychology and sociology and civilization of the American society. I had writers, but at the same time very early on, it got to the point that with the character, it got so popular that we didn't know if I'd be out there for three minutes or 8 minutes. Stephanie McMahon was the one I spoke with the most, and they may say you need to hit this this and this, but they didn't script it. I think my social studies background and my interest in politics helped the character, because I was able to use truth as a part of my gimmick. Truth that really confronted people with what was going on in 2005, which was a lot of Xenophobic backlash from what happened in 2001."

What was a guy like Vince McMahon like backstage?

"I though Vince McMahon was incredibly in control of his product, but he was open to ideas. I didn't personally have a negative interaction with Vince. Easy to get along with. To the extent that I dealt with him, he knows his product, his fan base, what he wants and how to get it there. He took a conglomerate of federations and turned it into an enterprise. For all of the negative press that Vince gets, I didn't personally have a negative interaction with him. Granted, the level of interaction I had was much less than someone who had been there for five or ten years."

What was your reaction when you were told you would be doing a segment with Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania?

"How do you answer that? That was what got me into wrestling. I remember Hulk slamming Andre the Giant at the Silverdome. It was the highlight of my career. I've worked with tremendous talents. Shawn Michaels, Chris Jericho, Kane, Undertaker, but it's Hulk Hogan. Not to take anything away from those guys, but it's Hulk Hogan. The moment in MSG when Hulk Hogan saved Shawn Michaels, I learned the meaning of the term 'blew the roof off of the building.' The center of that ring, it felt like we were lifting off the ground. He was laid back, cool, great to work with. I've heard bad stories about him, but I never have a negative thing to say about him."

What was it like working with Daivari on the angle?

"Shawn and I have lost touch, it's a product of the busy traveling schedule if you're a wrestler. Since I've been out of wrestling I've got an undergraduate degree, a master's degree, a CSS, I've been busy myself. Shawn was great, a brilliant wrestling mind. The only thing preventing Shawn Daivari from being a main eventer is 5-6 inches in height. Shawn's great on the mic, a tremendous talent in the ring, a great head on his shoulders about the business, in and out of the ring. Unfortunately he wasn't gifted with six foot or over. I'd love to see Shawn get a shot in the WWE and a push. We've seen it happen with Eddie, with Rey, with Chris, but Shawn was great to work with, and I miss Shawn. I wish more time to stay in touch."

You mentioned that other promotions have contacted you. Has this been recently?

"It hasn't been recent. I can't remember the last time I was contacted. I've been asked to do appearances, and I've done maybe one or two, but as far as wrestling, I can't remember or the federation."

Have you wrestled since leaving WWE?

"I have not. I had my last match with the Undertaker in Buffalo, and I've not stepped into a ring since then. You don't top that. I made the conscious decision that when I was done with wrestling, I was done with wrestling, and I haven't been back since."

If WWE contacted you for a one-off appearance, is that something you would do?

"I guess it would depend on what capacity. I stay in shape, I'm definitely not out of shape, but I'm not in ring shape or as good of shape as I was when I was 25. I think that they've moved on from the Hassan character and all of the negativity associated with it."

Do you have anything else going on to promote?

"You know, I don't. My life is really different now. I got into education about five years ago and got my master's and my CSS and now I'm a building administrator, my passion is working with kids in education. New York state education, which is one of the more complicated and bureaucratic systems in the country, I'd like to continue to advance in that field. Right now, that's my focus. It's a strange story, I understand it's an interesting story. When I detached from wrestling, I decided I was going in a different direction. I think it's very dangerous spending your present looking into your past, so I choose to look into the future. Everything I do now is focused on that. I like working with kids and making this state and this country better one kid at a time, to be pie in the sky about it. "

So often, wrestlers contact us or vice-versa because there's a project to push. You didn't do that. This was an interview that I aggressively sought out. You don't often see happy endings with guys who get out of wrestling young, and this is a happy ending.

"You're right. I know guys who for the most part have left wrestling and pursued other careers. Johnny Jeter is a CPA, an accountant. Caylen Croft, he's an art teacher in Florida. Mike Bucci is running a bank in Louisville. It does happen. You have to make that decision that wrestling is going to be part-time, or nonexistent, because if you don't have that passion, you don't have the opportunity to move on to a different field like we did. I don't do a lot of interviews or appearances, but in another where I am now, I'm all over the place."

Is there anything else that kept you out of the ring?

"On top of what we spoke about, one thing that happened is you rack up a lot of injuries. I've been out of wrestling for ten years and between my back, my shoulder, even some head injuries, I still feel it. When I'm shoveling my driveway, I know I was involved in physical activity that equates to a minor car crash every night. That's what being a wrestler is. As I stopped wrestling for a while, I felt this, and I knew my body was different, I weighed the situation. You have a short shelf life as a wrestler. Very few people make it long in the business, and one of the reasons is injuries. My career in WWE was a year, but I was in OVW for three or four at practice every day. I didn't think there was a beneficial long term outcome for me after all the injuries I'd racked up. That was a major deciding factor, and the injuries still plague me today, and have a direct impact on my daily life. I still see doctors for these injuries. People know this now, but it's not all the glamour, there is a lot of detriment to your personal health that you assume. No one tells you the kind of injuries you're going to accumulate and how that's going to affect you later in life, because they can't tell you. When I made that decision, that was a major contributing factor. The cons of the injuries outweighed the pros of pro wrestling."

What would you say was the worst injury you sustained?

"The one that bothers me the most now is my neck and my back. I had a few situations where I was concussed. I know Chris Nowinski does great work and there's attention from the NFL, but a lot of it is just nagging injuries that build up. It's difficult to shovel my driveway, difficult to be on my knees. Playing with my young child, everything starts to tighten up. I've done physical therapy and still work out to do everything I can to feel fit, but you can't narrow it down to just one. It's the general broad strain it places on your body."

Anything you want to say to the fans. How do you want to be remembered as a WWE Superstar?

"We live in an era of many tremendous entertainers and wrestlers. I'd like myself and my character remembered as somebody who came in and had a major impact, made people think, challenged people's perceptions, made the product better, and left before I could see my career decline. I went out on top. Not that it was by design. That's one of the reasons I never came back. I peaked early, I peaked quick. Maybe I wasn't ready for it, but I had an impact while I was there."

You can listen to the full interview above, or in the player below. You can also download audio of the interview directly at this link. If you want to subscribe to our audio channel, you can do so through iTunes as well as our RSS feed, which you can use this to subscribe through any podcast app. If you enjoy the interview, please rate us on iTunes!