It was standing-room-only on September 14th, 2019, when Game Changer Wrestling presented Josh Barnett's Bloodsport II live on FITE TV, broadcasting from inside The Showboat Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey—less than a stone's throw from the boardwalk. All matches that night took place in a bare-bones professional wrestling ring stripped of its ropes, successfully achieving a mixed martial arts aesthetic. The audience was comprised of independent wrestling fans notorious for their outward disdain toward anything even faintly reminiscent of "sports entertainment," the PG genre of professional wrestling produced by the monolithic World Wrestling Entertainment.

Which made it all the more curious when Anthony Carelli, 45, formerly known as WWE's Santino Marella—a character that is the pure embodiment of sports entertainment—was so rabidly received by the somewhat jaded fanbase. When all was said and done, he had been on the receiving end of one of the biggest ovations of the night.

Why the disparity? Because the crowd quickly realized they weren't watching the comedic caricature of a bumbling Italian who once won the Miss WrestleMania Battle Royal dressed in drag, posing as his "twin sister," Santina. Instead, they bore witness to the debut of all-around badass Anthony Carelli. He marched to the ring in plain black trunks with red trim to the blaring horns and war drums of Anvil of Crom, the theme from Conan the Barbarian, blasting throughout the vicinity—Carelli completed the no-nonsense aesthetic with a likeness of the brooding antihero tattooed across half of his chest—and the crowd went positively bananas for him.

On the flipside, a cacophony of boos rained down upon his opponent, Simon Grimm, formerly known as WWE's Simon Gotch—a tremendous competitor in his own right. The two did not disappoint. Instead of the (admittedly wildly entertaining) comedy gaga spots he has been known for worldwide since his television debut in 2007, Carelli put on display his three decades plus of hardcore judo experience. It was an excellent bout that was as hard-hitting and flat-out real as anything you'd hope to see on the event. I felt privileged to officiate it.

After the match, which Carelli won by submission via an expertly-applied rolling armbar, we sat down to chat. Appropriately, earlier that evening Carelli and I were involved in a conversation about Sumerian literature from the Early Bronze Age. While some long-time veterans of the big leagues can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with, Carelli is warm, personable, and easily approachable. Intellectual, polite, and even soft-spoken, Carelli could not be anything further from the loud-mouth with a unibrow he portrayed on WWE TV once upon a time.

And that once upon a time is certainly not the present. As Carelli puts it: "To be honest, if I had my way, this is the only way I would wrestle moving forward. I'm done being Santino, man. It was an honor and a pleasure, but this is my style. This is what I'd like to continue to do."

Carelli admits that he felt unprepared for the match cardio-wise, busy as he is with his work as a coach at the state-of-the-art Battle Arts Academy, which he runs in Mississauga, Ontario. The facility offers classes on not only professional wrestling but boxing, Brazilian jiu jitsu, judo, karate, Muay Thai, Olympic wrestling, and weight training. Despite any issues with cardio, he was ultimately happy with the bout: "I loved it, man. I felt at home."

The match was particularly special for Carelli because it gave him the opportunity to showcase a side of himself that he wasn't able to express in WWE: "Santino wasn't supposed to be a s--t-kicker."

A practitioner of judo since the age of nine, Carelli is a huge advocate for the martial art: "I just believe in judo… [it] transfers very well to this type of match… If you have to pick one sport to prep you for a career in pro wrestling, I think judo is the most complete."

Carelli initially retired from full-time competition in the WWE in 2014 due to a series of neck injuries that would require surgery to repair. When I ask him how he's doing these days, he tells me: "My neck's okay. I mean, I'm limited, right? I'm not taking any f--king piledrivers. But it's my lower back right now that's a major issue."

When I ask if that was a concern going into such a physically demanding match, he assures me: "No. I'm in control. No one's going to drop me on my head... But it's always a chance, right? … I'm very mindful of my neck with everything I do."

Aside from coaching and the occasional in-ring booking, Carelli keeps busy these days as an analyst on Canadian TV show Sportsnet 360 Aftermath and as a commentator for the International Judo Federation, which had him travel to Kazakhstan for a tournament not long after Bloodsport: "I'm enjoying life after wrestling, but this kind of stuff keeps me coming back."

I once sat in on one of Carelli's judo classes at the Battle Arts Academy. Make no mistake about it: if he wanted to, he could dismantle a human being in a heartbeat. With ease. So far as I'm concerned, if pro wrestling was a legitimate combat sport, Santino Marella would still be champion.

Kris Levin is a traveling storyteller, professional wrestling referee, contributor for Ripley's Believe It or Not!, and everybody's favorite nephew. He can be seen internationally on IMPACT Wrestling as their most junior official, #KidRef, and on social media at @RefKrisLevin.

Anthony's full interview with Wrestling Inc aired as part of Tuesday's episode of our WINCLY podcast. It can be heard via the embedded audio player at the bottom of this post.

You can check out past episodes of the WINCLY here. Subscribe to Wrestling Inc. Audio on iTunes or Google Play. Listen to the show via Spotify here or through TuneIn here.