Updated at 1:14 p.m. ET
Updated at 1:14 p.m. ET
There was a sense of relief when pinning Frankie Kazarian down for a lengthy conversation. With his time scarce and split between family, wrestling and music, our assumption was that the Ring of Honor star would be a hard man to get hold of. Fortunately, the well-traveled veteran found a small window amongst his demanding schedule to discuss the last 20 years in fine detail, going all the way back to the moment he fell in love with the craft that would ultimately become his livelihood.
“It was Rocky 3, a boxing film, funnily enough, that got me hooked on wrestling,” reveals Kazarian. “I’m a child of the ‘80s and Rocky 3 was my favorite Rocky, so after being hooked on that I found myself in the video store with my mom and cousin and there was Wrestlemania 1 available to hire. Now, the front cover had Hulk Hogan and Mr. T on it, but all I could see was Clubber Lang (T’s character from the movie) teaming up with Thunderlips (Hogan’s character). My mom hired the event and that was pretty much it. Wrestling combined the three things I loved: sport, action movies and comic books.”
With a style developed worlds apart from the action that dominated his introduction to professional wrestling, Kazarian is nonetheless quick to point out that the era that first gripped his fascination still provides him with adequate enjoyment. This, despite the slow-paced, muscleman action being so far removed from the jaw-dropping antics that made the 41-year-old Californian a pioneer of TNA’s widely-acclaimed X division around the middle of the last decade.
“I suppose it’s like everything in life that makes you feel young,” he said. “Although the in-ring action evolved to an altogether different level, it’s impossible not to watch footage from that age and not feel like a kid all over again. It’s like music or movies, they make you think of a certain time and place in your life and that’s the same for me with wrestling. I can watch those old WWE matches and be made to feel like an excited little schoolboy all over again.”
Kazarian was a focused teenager with eyes fixed firmly on one occupation. A brief conference with his parents allowed him to map out his future dreams and in the span of a few weeks he was off to Massachusetts to gain an education in wrestling from Killer Kowalski, a superstar who found fame courtesy of the wrestling business throughout the 1960s, and who also took the novice frames of Big John Studd, Triple H, and Chyna, and converted them into pillars of the industry.
An ardent student with an unrelenting passion for wrestling knowledge, Kazarian adapted to his new surroundings with the utmost ease and weeks later he was having his first match. Far removed from the thriving independent scene that exists today, it was more the overspill from mammoth companies such as WWE and WCW that flowed all the way down to the minor leagues. Kazarian was performing regularly in New England and can still recall his first night on the job.
“I was paid $75 and back then that was one hell of a wage for an independent guy having his first match,” he says. “For that sum, I had to do a little bit more than wrestle, though. I was with the guys helping build the ring, I was working security after my match, and I was also in charge of the Polaroid camera that Honky Tonk Man had, as he was in attendance charging fans to have their photograph taken with him. My first night was quite eventful and the money was great, but I learned very quickly that wouldn’t be a wage that I could get used to.”
Relocating to the familiarity of home, Kazarian would make anywhere between $15 and $25 tossing his enthusiastic body across rings throughout Southern California. A move to Ultimate Pro Wrestling, an organization very much on the radar of WWE hierarchy allowed Kazarian to flaunt his skills to the likes of Jim Ross, William ‘Paul Bearer’ Moody and Bruce Prichard on a frequent basis. The WWE office guys were regular attendees at UPW and it was the organization wherein they first spotted a green John Cena. The contemporary face of wrestling was a road colleague of Kazarian and his outstanding success comes as no surprise to his former travel companion.
“People can say what they want about John as a performer, but for as long as I’ve known him, he’s always been the most hardworking man in the room,” Kazarian said without hesitation. “His work ethic was like nothing I’ve ever seen before and having the chance to travel all around with him and become his friend meant a lot to me at the time. He’s always wanted to be the best and it wouldn’t matter what was in his way. If he wanted something he was going to have it.”
With the wrestling trade hitting a downward spiral in the early days of the millennium due to WWE’s dominance ripping the cord on life support machines for both WCW and ECW, a number of promotions fantasized about providing an alternative to the all-conquering Stamford, Connecticut titan. Ring of Honor and Total Non-Stop Action arrived with distinct identities and Kazarian would play a crucial role in enabling both companies to grow. His performances in TNA’s X Division, which featured a class of competitors renowned for aerial and technical excellence, delivered runs with the category’s belt and a cluster of matches that brought widespread admiration.
“Man, what can I say about the X Division? That really was a group of guys at the top of their game having unbelievable matches every single time they went out there,” Kazarian says with pride. “Myself, AJ Styles, Amazing Red, Chris Daniels, Petey Williams, Alex Shane, Chris Sabin, Sonjay Dutt, Low-Ki. I’m probably missing out another load of guys, but when you’ve got that type of talent on your roster and you’re going out there to the fans full of hunger then there’s only one thing that’s going to happen. Those days were really some of the happiest of my career and it was an absolute pleasure to be out there with those guys trying to be different and making a name for ourselves.”
A consistent performer capable of delivering high-quality action, Kazarian attracted the attention of WWE and he was handed the opportunity to compete for the group who made him fall in love with wrestling all those years ago.
Operating in their feeder league, Ohio Valley Wrestling, and occasionally starring on the WWE’s lesser television shows such as Velocity, Kazarian proved that his in-ring craft was more than adequate to survive in WWE. But from a personal standpoint, the man who had now been entertaining fans all over America for over seven years felt that he wasn’t ready for such a step up.
“I couldn’t do it mentally. I don’t think I was mature enough and there’s an awful lot you have to take in when you get to the WWE,” he admitted. “If the move would’ve come another two or three years later, then absolutely I would’ve been ready. But you’re not just a wrestler when you arrive there. It’s run like a huge company and it becomes a place of work and you’re like an employee just as much as you’re a wrestler. I still wanted to just wrestle for the fun of it and I just feel at that moment that it was too serious for me and I didn’t think it was going to work out.”
Kazarian returned to a TNA that had become more commercial in his absence. Television deals and PPV’s were very much the norm from 2006-2009 and with a number of high-profile WWE stars making the switch there — such as Christian Cage, Kurt Angle and Booker T — the Florida-based outfit was taking massive strides and receiving the type of attention it had desired since its 2002 formation.
Creatively, 2009 was arguably the most impressive in TNA’s brief history, and when Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff joined the promotion that same year, some expected the success the pair had enjoyed in WCW, accelerating in 1996, would be replicated 13 years later in another region of the country. Things didn’t quite work out as TNA’s peak had already been hit, but Kazarian is quick to dismiss any blame being attributed to either Hogan or Bischoff.
“There are a lot of people in wrestling who love to stand up and say that Hulk Hogan and Eric Bischoff are to blame for the demise of TNA and that is simply not true,” Kazarian said.
The appointment of Hogan is the easiest decision of all time because TNA wanted some recognition and they went out and got the guy who essentially was wrestling for such a long time. In Bischoff, you had a production genius who was full of so many good ideas and who had brought a lot of good to the wrestling world in WCW.
“It was the management setup that caused so many problems in TNA. The wrestlers had no idea whatsoever who was running things,” he continued. “Was it [TNA President] Dixie Carter? Was it [founder and part-owner] Jeff Jarrett? Was it [writing team member] Vince Russo? Who do you go to if you have a problem? If you have this great creative idea you want to pitch, who do you go and speak to? Nobody knew and that was the big problem and everyone felt the same. Let me ask you this, if you want something in WWE, who do you think you go and ask? It’s [Chairman] Vince McMahon. Everybody over there [WWE] knows who’s in charge and nobody knew in TNA and that caused so much confusion and unrest.”
Despite the backstage disarray, Kazarian enjoyed a prosperous spell throughout the Hogan-Bischoff chapter of TNA’s layered storybook. His spell as a member of the faction Fortune afforded him an upper-card position and this time in the spotlight allowed him the rub of several legendary names such as Hogan and Ric Flair. Shortly after, his real-life best friend, Daniels, would become Kazarian’s tag team partner and the pair have rarely been separated since forming an alliance in 2012.
“Do you know how good it is to go to work with your best friend? He’s my best friend in the business, he’s my best friend outside of wrestling, and I think you can see that in everything we do, whether it be wrestle, cutting a promo, or even taking part in a skit backstage,” Kazarian offered. “Me and Chris knew we’d have a lot of success and we were so keen to breathe life back into TNA’s tag team division which had become a little quiet since guys like Beer Money [Bobby Roode and James Storm] and The [Motor City] Machine Guns [Chris Sabin and Alex Shelley] had all split up. We were pretty much allowed to do whatever we wanted and we had a great time just being ourselves with the volume turned that little bit higher.”
Despite cementing themselves, and their legacy, as one of the world’s finest tag teams, Kazarian admits that not all was right regarding the direction in which the battered TNA ship was heading. In January 2014, with the group in the midst of a lucrative European tour, Kazarian made the difficult decision to ply his trade elsewhere. His stock was at a healthy level due to the success enjoyed by Bad Influence, his team with Daniels, so opportunities would undoubtedly present themselves, and with TNA floundering both financially and creatively, Kazarian darted to the exit door knowing he had done all he could to help make TNA the best wrestling establishment it could be.
“Too many guys were going and the guys they were letting go were some of the best around,” Kazarian said. “AJ Styles, the best wrestler in the company, and one of the best wrestlers in the world, was allowed to leave. There was a small group of us, TNA originals, who did so much to try and take a small wrestling company and make it one of the best in the world, and I don’t think any of us ever really received the credit for it. We were often overlooked for WWE guys looking to come in and that really got to some of the guys. My contract was coming up and I knew in my heart and in my head that I didn’t want to sign another one. I wanted to leave on good terms but then there was so much stuff about us not being able to use the Bad Influence name, so that’s pretty much how Chris and I became The Addiction.”
Debuting almost immediately in ROH, Kazarian and Daniels started the only way they know how and that was to deliver an impeccable standard of wrestling. Resounding matches with ReDRagon, The Kingdom and The Young Bucks helped solidify The Addicted as one of the world’s finest tag teams and their standing in today’s version of ROH remains as prominent as ever. With the Baltimore company in a healthy position and set to invade New York City in a grand way next year by running from a sold-out Madison Square Garden, Kazarian has nothing but kind words about his current check-signers.
“Ever since ROH started, they’ve always been the company that has had the best in-ring product,” Kazarian said without any hesitation. “Even if I wasn’t wrestling for them, I could still admit that they had the best wrestlers having the best matches and it’s simply amazing to be a part of their team at the moment because they are hitting it out of the park. Everything seems to be falling into place for us and the guys we have working here are some of the hungriest wrestlers in the world. We want something really big to happen to Ring of Honor and you can see that is almost upon us with what’s happening at The Garden next year.”
With achievements and accolades in abundance, Kazarian is nowhere near contemplating the end as either a wrestler or entertainer. Away from the squared circle, Kazarian is a member of two bands, Gutter Candy and Vex Temper, and he has also launched a brand of cigars with Cody Rhodes. My final question to Kazarian forces him to choose between the two pastimes that mean the most to him; would he prefer a platinum album with one of his bands, or a WrestleMania main event with Chris Daniels in the opposite corner?
“You can’t ask me that. Wow that is a really hard decision,” he said. “Let me say the album because achieving platinum status in 2018 is one hell of a thing. My wrestling career has given me the chance to live out so many different dreams that I didn’t think were possible as a young boy, so I guess I wouldn’t mind having the same success in the music business. Chris and I are having so much fun in Ring of Honor now and were going to be a part of some massive things there so I guess the WrestleMania main event one day is more of a possibility. Chris and I definitely won’t rule that out.”
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