I recently spoke with former WWE and TNA star Shawn Daivari, whose new professional wrestling school with Ken Anderson, The Academy: School Of Professional Wrestling, opens this week. In part one of the interview below, Daivari discussed getting his start with WWE, his hot WWE run, working with Shawn Michaels and Hulk Hogan, The Undertaker and more.
Make sure to check back next week for part two of the interview, where Daivari discussed Stephanie McMahon proposing a George Bush gimmick, the end of his WWE run, working for TNA, Dixie Carter, why he disappeared from Lucha Underground, his brother Ariya working with WWE and more.
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You started wrestling for WWE in 2003 and I didn't hear much of you on the independents much before that. How long had you been wrestling before making your debut?
"I started wrestling in '99. Then, I don't know if you want to call it a 'debut' or whatever, but I started working for the WWE in 2002, non-contract kind of as a local guy. And then, I signed my deal in 2004 with them."
When you started with WWE, how long was it before they approached you with the now infamous pairing with [Marc] Copani?
"So that happened in 2004, after I was signed, that they put that together because Marc wasn't an Arab character. He was just Mark Magnus, a wrestler down there in OVW. And then, I don't know how it came about, but I think what happened was enough time had gone after 9/11, where other media was kind of using Middle Easterners as villains on TV shows like The Cell, and The Wire, and s--t like that. I think when the wrestling media started saying, 'hey, it's not too sensitive now - use Middle Easterners as villains,' WWE said, 'okay, now it's time for us to do it as well,' and I think, at that point, they were like, 'who could we use?' They found Marc. He's Italian. He kind of wasn't the real deal and they knew me doing that character already. And they said, 'perfect, that's what we can do - we can put them [together]'. Really, it was two guys doing one gimmick."
I'm assuming you and Marc were completely cool with it from the beginning, right?
"Yeah, both of us. I had been doing it for a couple [of years]. Like I said, I started in '99 and I just wasn't doing the character at all. I was just a regular wrestler, no character really of any kind. And then, maybe 2003 I started thinking, 'hey, maybe I can try the Arab schtick - maybe enough time has passed since 9/11 where people would know it's entertainment, but maybe at this point they will say it's not in poor taste. And that's when I started doing it. And even WWE let me do it on their s--t, when they would book me for tryouts and stuff. And then, from the day, my very first tryout with them, they said they were going to hire me and they just never did. And then eventually when they said, 'okay, lets run with it', they picked Marc for the spot and then they were just kind of like, 'how can we make it work because he's f--king Italian.' I think it was either Jim Cornette or Dr. Tom [Prichard] that brought my name up and said, 'hey, put these two together.' That more or less [is the story]. That's why I was never in developmental or anything. They just put us together and put us right on the road."
Did you ever get uncomfortable with the amount of heat you were getting?
"Not really.I don't believe anyone was ever offended to the point where they said something. I've had marks try and get in the ring tons of times and this is before WWE and have to fight them and whatever. But I don't think it was necessarily because they had so much heat and friction with foreigners or Middle Easterners. I think if I was any other heel, I might've had the same response. I don't know because it was always the same motherf--ker. It was always just some drunk asshole that was like, 'ah, he's a tiny guy - I can take him'. I think if I was any heel, they would've possibly done that. There's never anybody that is so affected by 9/11 or Middle Eastern terrorist acts that they said, 'this is striking a chord with me on a personal level,' I don't believe."
What about at home, like with the Iranian community? Did you get any heat in your personal life from it?
"Not too much. The biggest heat actually happened amongst other Middle Eastern people because Iranians don't wear the turban and stuff. And we don't speak Arabic, we speak Farsi, but on TV they always said Vince is huge on turbans like my brother's wearing. And I told him not to wear it, but Vince told him he should. And then, even the Farsi thing, it's like calling Portuguese 'Spanish'. It's not the same, but similar. But people were mad about it. Other Middle Easterners were like, 'f--k you - you're not speaking Arabic! That's not Arabic!' And like, dude, I didn't say I'm speaking Arabic!"
So backstage, what was it like? Were there people uncomfortable with the gimmick back then that you knew of, as far as talent?
"Not with the gimmick. A lot of people were uncomfortable with me and Marc's push, not with the character, I don't think."
Yeah, that is something I'd hear a lot about, you'd hear a lot about the heat, not necessarily with you, but more with Marc.
"Well, it was all Marc. I kind of went under the radar for a couple of reasons. One, was the fact that I was really small, like 18 years old, 19 years old, or something and I'm 5'9" and I'm barely 200 lbs., so nobody really, I don't believe, thought I was a threat to their position or their spot on the card. Marc was really talented, was red-hot as a heel, and he was jacked, and he was tall. There were people that were like, 's--t, this guy is going to get figured in, which means there is one less spot for them to figure me in' and he got a lot of totally unnecessary heat because of it. But it was also a different time. I always say if he was on the road today, he'd be a main event champion, like, instantly, everyone would be behind him."
So was that the only reason really he got a lot of heat, was just his push? I remember Batista saying in an interview once that he wished he could put you in Marc's body or something along those lines.
"Yeah, but that was everybody. Everybody, here's the thing about Marc, is that Marc had never done it before. He literally never did anything in wrestling outside of WWE. His first day on the job was for WWE, so he didn't necessarily know how to carry or conduct himself in the locker room, I should say, which is total horse s--t because how would you know? It's like his first day on the job. But as far as being an employee, he was great. Like, the office couldn't be happier with him. It was just the other boys were kind of upset. Now, a lot of it, stemmed, I believe, from jealousy, because if he was an match 1, match 2 act, he wouldn't have any heat whatsoever."
And so was it both of you who tried to smooth things over in Tokyo and it lead to an incident?
"Yeah, they called him into Wrestlers' Court. It happened a couple of times actually, but I think this particular instance was, I don't remember what caused it, but it was totally unwarranted and not necessary. As soon as it happened, Jericho was quick to pick up on it. We were two guys doing one schtick. So whatever he did, meant a lot to me, and whatever I did, meant a lot to him, so when they called him into Wrestlers' Court, they didn't say anything about me, but I was going to be there standing next to him the entire time, helping him defend himself as much as he needed. But then Jericho was like, right away, 'not you' and he grabbed me and we left. He was keeping an eye out for me because he knew there was no heat on me, so he didn't want it to fall on me, via association."
Wasn't there something also at a bar where he was trying to buy shots for the guys and they just dumped it in front of him?
"That was Tokyo! Yeah! f--king hotel bar, it's expensive as f--k anyways, international is way more expensive, and they kept making him buy shots of Jack Daniels and drinks and stuff and guys would literally take them, and it's $10 a shot, $12 a shot, and there's probably 20 guys there. It's like $200 a round. And guys would just take them and spill them on the carpet. I think he ended up spending $3,000 that night."
And what was Marc's response? Like how did he feel the next day?
"He was upset and rightfully so. But he just didn't understand it. He didn't get why all this heat was falling on him. And in reality, it shouldn't've. He wasn't doing anything wrong. He was actually doing really, really well for the WWE. He just couldn't figure out why the s--t kept falling on him and it shouldn't've. The insecurities of other talent that he was going to be the guy, we even had a sit-down meeting with Johnny Ace when we got switched to SmackDown and he said, 'hey, just letting you know, we're putting the rocket on you - we moved you to SmackDown, you can't be a top guy on RAW because we have Cena on there now and Hunter is the top heel, but we're bringing you guys to SmackDown,' so you can be the top heel on the show. And then, people knew that. People figured it out and they were jealous."
During your guys' short run, you did angles with Steve Austin, you worked with Shawn Michaels, Hulk Hogan, and that's a lot of guys' dream. What was it like working with Shawn and Hogan?
"So the guys that were in the know, they loved it because they knew we were a hot act, especially when you're a babyface. They loved working with us. The people that weren't getting to work with us started all the s--t. It was always the heels that weren't getting Marc's spot. And then, it was the f--king babyfaces that couldn't work with us. They were, I don't want to say beneath us, in the office's eyes, storyline-wise beneath us."
And how was it working with Shawn?
"Awesome. He was the first guy that would kind of let everybody else know that hey, me personally, 'he's the heater, lets do something with him'. And at that point, when I wrestled Shawn, I was a manager. I should say, my first match, televised, under contract as the Daivari character was against HBK and he put me over. That was his call. It was nothing the office came up with. They would've never pitched that to him."
"Yeah, they'd never say, 'yeah, hey, we're going to make you do a job tonight to that manager for free on TV'. They would never bring that up to him. That was his thing."
What about Hogan? What's it like working with him, probably the biggest name in the history of our business?
"It was same-same, man. For the people that got it and the people that knew, they loved it. They knew we were red-hot. They knew that we could deliver as far as the fans are concerned. When I say fans, the people that are going to spend money on it, they knew that, so they wanted to work with us. When Hogan came back for that night, the thing was, they needed something for Hogan Knows Best. Remember he had that reality show?
"So they pitched him, I think in their second season or something, 'hey, can we figure out a way [to] make a comeback for you or something?' So that's where the whole thing started. He went to Vince and said, 'hey, can I do one thing for my reality show?' Vince said, 'yeah, who do you want to work with?' And then, he said, 'let me watch the show and I'll get back to you'. And he saw a couple weeks of TV and said, 'I want to work with the Arabs.'"
Do you think we'll see Hogan back with the WWE?
"Absolutely. Obviously, not in a full-time capacity. Of course. They'll work with anybody that can make them money."
What was it like working with The Undertaker?
"Awesome, man. No one ever remembers, I worked with him for almost a year straight. He loved working with me. In general, he was probably the most respected guy in the dressing room that didn't kind of ever ask for it. He just kind of was. He was never appointed as the head dude. We didn't vote him in, he just kind of became that guy."
So you mentioned that you worked with Undertaker for almost a year, paired with The Great Khali, you actually weren't off of TV that long. You were off just a few months, right?
"Yeah, I was off for less than, right around three months."
Yeah, and then you were kind of paired with Kurt Angle before you were with The Great Khali. I felt that was kind of just natural, you and Khali. I mean, granted, he's Indian and you're Iranian, but it worked great. Why was that pairing dropped?
"So the f--king whole story is they were going to have, originally, Donald Trump and Hulk Hogan against Great Khali and Vince McMahon where they're shaving their heads. And then they friggin couldn't come to a deal with Hogan, so then it got switched to Bobby Lashley and Umaga. But that was the reason it was dropped. They go, 'well, we can't have himů we can't have Vince in his corner and he already has a manager,' so they split me up to put him and Vince together, and when Hogan and WWE couldn't come to an agreement, the whole thing got clusterf--ked and they just never put us back together.
"The whole thing was to have, because it was back in Detroit, and it was for WrestleMania 23, so it was like 20-year Hogan-Andre anniversary thing back in Detroit. But really, it was just kind of a nostalgia thing. The selling point was Vince and Trump. So it was like, 'how could Vince be in his corner as his manager when he already has one?'"
Did you get to talk to Donald Trump at all at that WrestleMania?
"I don't remember. I don't remember. If we did have a conversation, it was probably, 'hi, how are you?'
So when is The Academy opening?
"November 1st, we start our first class, and, yeah, it's opening November 1st."
So opening day, it's going to be you, Ken [Anderson], and Nora [Molly Holly] all there together?
"Yep. We'll be there and then Aric Cannon who some people don't know, but I think is the most polished diamond on the indy scene that no one [has] ever heard of because of his own doing. It wasn't his goals and aspirations, he [has] achieved, and that was to live off of wrestling. That's what he does. Wrestling is his job. And he never wanted to go to WWE. We never wanted to go to TNA. The only things he wanted to do in his career was go to Japan and work in Europe. He does that."
And yourself, how often are you going to be doing classes? Is it several times a week?
"Yep. We have a schedule, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, we train. And then, on a case-by-case basis, as needed, depending on if a student is lagging behind, or holiday, change of schedule, whatever, we can adjust it any way we need. The facilities are that we can come in and out as we want, but we've set the schedule tentatively for Monday, Wednesday, Friday."
How can people learn more about it?
"So if you go to TheAcademyProWrestling.com, all the information on there that you would need and it also has a contact page where you can call us or email us if you have any questions that aren't answered on the website. And then, what we're doing right now for our first class is tuition is regularly $3,000, but we're knocking it down to just $1,000 because if there is someone that could leave a positive mark on the pro wrestling business, we don't want finances to be the reason that they're not able to because I remember Austin Aries, for example, when we started training, I think training was the same with Eddie Sharkey . It was like $2,500 or $3,000 or something. But there [were] a lot of times at the time Austin Aries didn't have it. He was just in a financial bind. He graduated [from] college. He was up to his ears in student loans. And then, he had to move to Minneapolis, so he had to get a new place, get a car, and sometimes he didn't have money to go to camp and his education or his training progressed a little bit slower because he didn't get to participate as much. And knowing what a positive mark he has left and at the time knowing, 'this guy [has] got it - he's going to be successful,' it's really, really s--tty because he didn't have money in his pocket, he didn't get there sooner or he couldn't progress as fast as everybody else did because he couldn't participate as much.
"So me and Ken are like, 'that's bulls--t.' If you have something to offer this business, if this is something that you could do, and leave a positive impression on the pro wrestling business, anything could get in the way: injuries, life, drug problem, whatever. But we don't want finances to be the reason. That's stupid. Just for this first class we're doing it for $1,000, which is [a good deal]. We looked around. I mean, you can go to some backyard, piece of s--t wrestling school that's more than $1,000."
Make sure to check back next week for part two of the interview, where Daivari discussed Stephanie McMahon proposing a George Bush gimmick, the end of his WWE run, working for TNA, Dixie Carter, why he disappeared from Lucha Underground, his brother Ariya working with WWE and more. For more information on The Academy, click here.