My story, written by Jan Murphy
TJ Wilson remembers the first time he laid eyes on his first love.
That’s because when the longtime World Wrestling Entertainment star known as Tyson Kidd sees something, he never forgets it.
“I recently saw Brian Blair and he probably thought I was lying or embellishing, but I told him first time I saw wrestling, one of my cousins showed it to me. (It was a match) featuring the Killer Bees versus Demolition. I distinctly remember the Killer Bees and I distinctly remember Demolition. I’ve YouTube’d this just to see if this match exists and they do have a few TV matches so I know I’m not completely out of the ballpark when I say that I believe that’s the first match I ever saw,” the 38-year-old Calgary native said, showing off his photographic memory during an interview in a hotel room in Brooklyn. “Anyway, I watched wrestling and was completely enamoured with it right off the bat.”
Little did the young Wilson know at the time, but that first taste of the squared circle would become his life, his love, eventually his career and, quite nearly, his end.
For Wilson, the only male in the home he shared with his mother and two sisters, the pomp, pageantry and physical nature of what he’d witnessed became his obsession. Like many boys introduced to the world of pro wrestling at such an impressionable age, it wasn’t long before Wilson found himself practicing what he’d seen on TV on his siblings.
“I didn’t have any brothers to (horse around with)” Wilson said. “(And wrestling programs) didn’t have disclaimers back then warning ‘DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME.’ So I didn’t know I wasn’t allowed to try it at home, so I tried a couple moves on my sisters.”
Wilson’s ill-advised emulation quite nearly permanently derailed what would eventually become one of Canada’s greatest wrestling success stories.
“My mom put a stop to that,” Wilson said of his practicing on his sisters, “and wrestling was banned in my house after that.”
While Wilson’s mother eventually accepted his life in pro wrestling, her worst fears nearly came to fruition years later. More on that later.
“Her disdain wasn’t for wrestling, her disdain was for me practicing moves on my sisters. And of course then the dangers of wrestling, she obviously doesn’t want to see me get hurt, which, I guess I threw that out the window,” he quipped.
The discussion reminded Wilson of a tape that he said he hopes no longer exists from his childhood.
“The video did show me giving my sister a Razor’s Edge on the floor,” he said. “I tried to do it safely and she ended up on her head. She didn’t put it over that bad considering I’d given her a Razor’s Edge.”
In those days, there were no DVRs, there was no WWE Network and YouTube was years away from becoming a thing.
“I didn’t know how to find wrestling,” Wilson recalled. “I just knew that it was not allowed to be watched in my house. I wouldn’t say I was devastated because I had seen it only one time and yes, I was really enamored, but I wasn’t hooked yet when it was taken away from me.”
Fittingly, it would be Canadian wrestling royalty which would intervene and usher in the reintroduction of wrestling into Wilson’s life, though it took a series of fateful events to bring it all together.
“I went to school with Nattie’s cousin, Teddy Hart,” Wilson said referring to his now real-life wife, Natalya Neidhart, the daughter of the late Jim (The Anvil) Neidhart. Teddy Hart is the son of Georgia Hart, one of the children of the iconic Hart Family in Calgary, and a grandson of the late Stu and Helen Hart. Teddy Hart’s father is bodybuilder BJ Annis.
Wilson himself failed kindergarten and was held back a year. The following year, he said, he repeated kindergarten in the mornings and did his Grade 1 work in the afternoon, a hefty workload for anyone let alone a six-year-old boy. The following year, he completed Grade 1. By Grade 3, Wilson’s photographic memory began to pay dividends and he was deemed too advanced for the work and accelerated to the fourth grade, the same class as Hart.
“Teddy was very adamant that we be friends,” Wilson recalled, admitting that, “If I hadn’t been accelerated, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now.”
The friendship was one Wilson rejected at first.
“We weren’t friends in fourth grade,” Wilson said, adding that in fifth grade, he, Hart and a mutual friend had their desks all pushed together in the classroom, much to Wilson’s chagrin.
“At the end of that very first day, I moved my desk back a little bit. I was like ,’That Ted, man, I don’t like him.’ I moved my desk,” Wilson recounted with a chuckle. His other friend followed suit, as did a third student in the group, leaving Hart’s by itself.
“The next morning, Ted came in — and he’s always been like this — and he’s like, ‘Man, the janitor cleaning last night messed us up, he moved your guys’ desks, but didn’t move mine,’ and then he moved his desk into the square and I was like, ‘I’m stuck with him.’ “
Hart’s dogged pursuit of friendship continued, Wilson said.
“He was just relentless about being my friend and wanting me to come to his house,” Wilson said. “He kept saying he lived in a gym, which if you’re a kid doesn’t mean a workout gym, but rather a gymnasium.”
Hart also plied his soon-to-be best friend with promises of ice cream, Wilson said. “He just kept trying to lure me. And he didn’t live far from me. I lived in downtown Calgary just across this bridge and he just lived on the other side.”
Eventually, Wilson relented. “If you know Teddy Hart, he’s very unrelenting, so I went to his house.”
There, Wilson encountered the training gym, run by his father, and was introduced to Hart’s mother, whom Hart called George, who was riding a bike the first time he met her.
“I thought it was weird that he was introducing me to members of the gym,” Wilson recalled. “I found out later that that actually was his mom and that’s what he referred to her as, is George. I’ve never heard him call her mom.”
The two enjoyed ice cream while Hart regaled Wilson with stories about the exploits of his famous uncles, WWE stars Bret (The Hitman) Hart and The British Bulldog Davey Boy Smith.
“I was familiar with them,” Wilson said, but Hart, he said, was obsessed. “If you were around the Hart family, especially at that time and especially the boys, it was perfectly acceptable and almost expected that you’d be obsessed with wrestling. And they were. Teddy and his brother (Matt) were pretty obsessed with it.”
That first trip to Teddy Hart’s home spawned another, then another, and before long, the friend Wilson never wanted became his closest pal. Naturally, Hart’s wrestling obsession began to rub off on Wilson.
“The next thing you know, I’m watching it every Saturday,” Wilson said. “I remember thinking at first that I knew I wasn’t supposed to be watching it. Part of me was like, ‘Should I really get into it because I’m not going to like it when I’m not able to watch it when I go home. Is it really worth it?’ But before long, I was hooked. I was hooked big time. In 1991, a lot more casually, but by SummerSlam ’92, I saw Bret and Davey and I was like, ‘Ah, so wrestling can look like this!’ “
SummerSlam 1992 not only became Wilson’s eureka moment, but it became his dream.
“I’m in all the way,” Wilson remembered thinking. “Now I know I’ll be a professional wrestler.”
As fateful as befriending a member of the Hart clan was, the fact is that Wilson grew up in arguably Canada’s wrestling mecca. In Calgary, unlike in nearly every other city across Canada, the vocation of professional wrestler was not a far-fetched one. Calgary, with its Harts and its Stampede Wrestling, had long been feeding the pro wrestling landscape with an abundance of talent.
Thinking back at the big picture, and considering how he was embraced and welcomed into the Hart family, Wilson joked that it was like something out of a gangster movie.
“It was like some type of mafia thing and I still haven’t changed my mindset on that,” he half joked. “It’s like the movie The Godfather. I was like the adopted son that gets brought in like Donnie Brasco except I wasn’t an undercover cop, but Sonny vouches for me. It was crazy. Teddy had all these other friends but for some reason I was always around. He was like, ‘Hey, you want to come up to my grandfather’s for Sunday dinner?’ My family didn’t have much money so a Sunday dinner sounded awesome to me.”
Sunday dinners at the Hart house were much like the family itself — large, impressive and a sight to behold. And except for during cold Alberta winters, there would always be a wrestling ring set up right in the front yard.
“You’d go there and you’re playing in a wrestling ring as a kid,” Wilson said, still sounding as surprised as he did the first time he saw it.
While Stu Hart prepared his famous Sunday dinner inside, and with other members of the Hart clan milling about, the kids would invade the ring, inventing all kinds of games. Much like kids who grew up in hockey families, Hart kids grew up inside a wrestling ring.
“We had all these different games we’d play in the ring,” Wilson recalled. “Not wrestling, but different types of tag where you had to stay on the ropes and climb across the ropes and weird stuff that may have even lent a hand in me doing springboards and stuff in the future. We’d play soccer in the ring. We played soccer where you had to kick it through both sets of ropes to the other side for it to qualify as a shot. We played so much weird stuff that involved this ring.”
Wilson said he now believes that those Sundays inside that ring led him directly down the path to his career in pro wrestling. And being around the Hart family, he said, a family with a rich and successful history in the business, made pro wrestling seem like any other career.
“For whatever reason, succeeding in wrestling just seemed possible,” he said. “I’ve read and listened to so many other peoples’ stories where they’ve said, ‘I just didn’t know where to go’ and mine was the opposite. Before SummerSlam ’92, I already knew that I was around wrestling, so once I decided what I wanted to do, it almost wasn’t that hard, in terms of finding out where to go. I’m not saying wrestling wasn’t hard.”
There was, however, still the matter of his mom’s strong dislike for wrestling, and that afforementioned ban in the Wilson household.
“There was a little period where my mom got really mad at me and I was kind of banned from hanging out with Ted,” Wilson added. “She thought he was a bad influence, which may or may not have been true, so we were a little bit distanced.”
That distance was quickly erased one summer day when Ted and his brother Matt showed up at Wilson’s house to borrow his video camera.
“Matt, who was Ted’s younger brother, and Harry (the son of Davey Boy Smith) were going to have a wrestling match,” Wilson said. “This was 1994.”
Matt and Harry, who were younger than Ted and Wilson, were headed to a village outside of Calgary called Rockyford, and needed Wilson’s camera to capture the action. Wilson eventually agreed to join them as a spectator.
“Ted and I sat in the crowd and watched his younger brother and younger cousin have this match,” Wilson recalled. “His younger brother at the time was 11 and Harry was eight. It was like a minute and a half and the crowd got excited watching these kids.” Wilson and Ted were both jealous and inspired by the experience.
In fact, they made a pact that day.
“Rockyford was this show where they’d have this little rodeo and they would do a Saturday and Sunday wrestling show every year. I think Stu had been doing them for over 25 years, even post-Stampede Wrestling. Our goal then was like, ‘All right, next year, we’re going to be on that show.’ “
And thus, training began.
“Originally, we were training at Ted’s dad’s gym because we were also learning amateur wrestling at the time so we had these amateur mats and a crash pad,” Wilson recalled of his earliest foray into ‘training.’ “We would do a lot of our big bumps on this crash pad.”
In those days, he said, they’d pop in a VHS tape of wrestling, watch a match, press pause, go downstairs and try to mimic what they’d just seen and repeat the process over and over.
“I mean the cardio just going up and down the stairs was probably a hell of a workout,” Wilson joked.
Wilson practiced at his home, but not on his sisters.
“I would wrestle this stuffed monkey and practice moves on this monkey on my bed. I remember just wrecking the hell out of my bed, wrecking mattresses like crazy, springs … all summer long we were just sitting there practicing moves and having matches with this five-foot tall weird stuffed toy. The head was stuffed, but the body was pretty flat with a little bit of stuffing and the limbs a little, but enough that I could practice.
“I would practice Sharpshooters, suplexes, this is where I learned to dropkick off the top rope. I would set my bed up and climb on top of the dresser and I saw how Owen (Hart) would jump and turn and land on his stomach. Wrestling this monkey is where I learned a lot of this stuff. The monkey was a hell of a wrestler. He was fun to wrestle.”
When Teddy and Wilson eventually began training at the infamous Hart Dungeon in the basement of the Hart home, not much changed, at least at first, Wilson said.
“We did the same thing, but we had a ring set up,” he said. “When we’d go and play down in the Dungeon, now we’re not bumping on a crash pad and we’re like, ‘Man, this thing hurts like hell.’ And there were no ropes, you’ve just got to simulate like you you’re hitting the ropes.” Ex-wrestler Tokyo Joe Diago often oversaw the students.
While Wilson said he thinks back to those days and realizes how unskilled they were, he still smiles at the enthusiasm and passion they had even then. “We were just kids, we didn’t know what we were doing.”
It wasn’t long before Wilson suffered his first injury, something he largely avoided in his actual career.
He broke his wrist at the beginning of June, weeks before he and Teddy were to fulfil their pledge to wrestle at Rockyford. “We were specifically told to stay away from the top rope, and with good reason,” Wilson said. He’d been perfecting his dropkick from the top rope, something he’d seen another of the famed Hart boys, Owen, do many times.
“I could do a dropkick off the top rope,” Wilson said, “but I didn’t know how to break my fall at all. For some weird reason, I just had the guts to just get up there and do a dropkick off the top rope because I’d seen Owen do it a million times.”
So one morning, with few people around, Wilson was asked to show off his dropkick. “I was feeling great so I did the dropkick off the top rope and when I landed, I was like, ‘Oh, no.’ I looked down and one bone was down and one bone was up.”
Thinking back, Wilson said his strongest recollection of that injury wasn’t the pain of it, but rather the incredible thirsty feeling that followed.
“Have you ever been hurt like that?” he asked the interviewer, adding he’s since learned that when you’re injured, your body’s natural reaction is to affect your stomach. “I was so thirsty. I was chugging water.”
With just five weeks until their planned Rockyford debuts, an X-ray at the hospital confirmed the worst—a broken wrist.
It took a while to see a doctor, though. “Finally, after a bunch of hours waiting, he’s like, ‘Does this hurt?’ ” Wilson recalled as he mimicked the doctor squeezing his wrist at the time. “And he’s like, ‘Yeah, I can feel your bone’s out.’ Imagine, he gives me like a snake bite, but to a broken wrist.”
The doctor set his wrist, which Wilson said gave him instant relief, and wrapped it in a cast.
“Then they did an X-ray and said, ‘Oh, it wasn’t set right. We’re going to have to wait for this plaster to harden, cut it off and set the bone again. Would you like to be under?’ I said after that first experience, ‘Yes, please!'”
Wilson said he was so thin at that time, the cast had to be placed from hand to mid biceps for the first two weeks. Eventually, frustrated with the inability to move his arm, Wilson said he cut off the cast himself.
“Prior to that, I’d gone to my doctor and she was like, ‘Ah, your bone still wasn’t set right.’ It was growing almost over top of each other. ‘We’re going to have to reset it,'” Wilson recalled. That meant another six weeks of healing. Wilson was given the choice of having the cast removed during the visit or coming back in later that day. Instead, that evening, his mother cut it off. “We wrapped it up and I tried to get a lot of movement out of it that night.”
Back to training it was, or so he thought. Teddy showed up excitedly that day to tell Wilson that they had a tryout match with Ross Hart the next day. It was explained that they, as well as Harry and Matt, would have tryouts, with one team getting a spot on the Rockyford show. (In hindsight, Wilson said he’s pretty certain it was already decided that the four would have a tag match at the show, but it was decided to withhold that information to let the four battle it out.) The tryout match ensued, with all four entrants laying it all on the line, pulling out their big moves.
“Teddy Hart – he still loves doing a back flip today – he could do a back flip back then and I could do a Frankensteiner, which in 1995 wasn’t a thing everyone was doing. It wasn’t a nice Frankensteiner, but I could at least do some version of one,” Wilson recalled of moves they used to impress their trainer.
Afterward, all were informed they’d be involved in a tag-team match in Rockyford.
“I still wasn’t formally, formally trained,” Wilson recalled. “Davey watched us wrestle and would give us little pointers and maybe if Owen was around, he would, too. Later on, Owen would really help us out. We’d get little pointers here and there because I think people kind of took a liking to seeing us wrestle all the time. We would wrestle ALL the time.”
Over the next several days, the foursome prepped for their big match.
“We set up like a crash course for four or five days,” he said. “The ring was set up at Stu’s and Ross and Bruce would run us through drills since it was crunch time, just kind of putting this match for us A, B, C and we had like a three-and-a-half-minute long match.”
Then came showtime.
“The nervous energy beforehand was almost unbearable,” Wilson recalled. “But then that same energy transferred in the ring was so fun. I’ve had that all the way through my whole career where it was like I’d be so nervous before going out. I was pretty good at staying cool, but it would be like, ‘Man, am I going to blow up?’ I wish I could fast forward to post-match where everybody’s like, ‘Yeah, great job!’ That feeling’s amazing. And the second you walk through that curtain, it kind of dissipates for whatever weird reason, but right before you’re about to go out, at least for me, I would always have this weird, nervous energy that I think helped me throughout my entire career.
Not so, however, that first night, he said.
“It was bad that first match. Bad. Dry mouth. I’d just turned 15. I’m a 15-year-old kid, I’m about to go to high school and I’m having my first professional match. I’d say it’s pretty natural to be nervous.”
Once they hit the ring, the nervousness subsided and the four managed to work through their match, marking the first match in what would be a long career for Wilson.
Professional wrestling would not only provide Wilson with his hopes and dreams, it would provide him with the love of his life, Nattie, known better to wrestling fans as Natalya. It was while chumming around with the Hart clan that Wilson was introduced to Nattie, who was visiting from Florida with her parents, Ellie, the eldest daughter of Stu and Helen, and her husband, Jim Neidhart.
Wilson admitted that he knew he was in love with Nattie the first time he laid eyes on her, but the reception he received on initial contact was anything but reciprocated.
“The first time I met Nattie, I remember it was at Stu’s and we were downstairs in one of the rooms,” Wilson recalled, adding that he doesn’t remember the context of the conversation, but that Nattie picked up on his adoration for her before turning heel on him.
“I was shy,” he said. “I knew I liked her right away. I remember her telling me off sometime like, ‘Well, I know I’m pretty, I don’t need you tell me!’ And I was like, ‘What is she talking about? I didn’t say anything.’ OK. I was like, ‘All right, we’ll see, we’ll see.’ It was definitely on.”
Nattie and Wilson would settle into a deep friendship that remains to this day. But it was some of that vintage Teddy Hart intervention that played a role in Wilson winning over Nattie’s heart.
“The show Mat Rats was coming around and somehow Teddy Hart, again, usually the influencer, convinced Nattie to be a part of the show,” Wilson recalled. The original plan was for Nattie to be a ring announcer. “Then Ted said, ‘What about a ring announcer who does a couple of high spots? What about a ring announcer who can do a Dragonrana or the Sliced Bread, if she could do these moves?’ ”
“Nattie was like, ‘I’d love to learn these moves,'” Wilson said, adding that Teddy suggest she wrestle with Wilson.
“It’s so weird,” he admitted, glancing over at his wife in the hotel room. “Our relationship is very unorthodox and it just kind of came together literally through wrestling moves.”
“What happened was, of course I had a crush on her, we were wrestling and doing moves together whenever she was there. We had this beautiful studio, we had this ring set up and we had full access to it. I went and did this four-day Stampede tour in way northern Alberta, like Grand Prairie, like six hours from Calgary — crazy drive.”
While he was away, Wilson said, Nattie thought she was skilled enough that she could do her moves with anyone, not just Wilson.
“She came in and was trying these same moves with (some of the students). We mostly trained kids from 14 to like 20. We had so many people. So Nattie, I think, tried a couple of moves with these guys and I think they didn’t go as well as she had thought they were going to go. But I think, in some weird way that’s what (triggered it). She was trying to fight it, and that’s what kind of clicked in her head that she liked me, more than just the wrestling dummy.”
The duo had been living together as friends at the time, but Wilson maintains that Nattie’s attraction for him came as a result of wrestling.
“I think after that little wrestling experiment where her ego came crashing back down to Earth, something clicked that she decided to stop fighting that she actually did like me.”
Though Hart blood doesn’t course through Wilson’s veins, make no mistake, he’s family. Ever since begrudgingly befriending Teddy Hart, Wilson has been in the Hart inner circle. When the subject turned to the patriarch of the Harts, Stu, Wilson spoke of a kind and generous man with strength that was matched only by his huge heart.
“Such nice people,” Wilson said of the late Stu and Helen Hart. “I lived at Stu’s at a later point in my life, when I was about 18 years old. Then later on, Nattie and I lived in the guest house from about 2002 to when the house sold in 2004.”
Wilson chuckled at the memory of how one moment, Stu could be stretching the life out of you, and the next making you a meal.
“I got stretched by Stu a few times, which hurt, immensely,” he said, his memory clearly painting that image as a smirk came to his face. “It’s just like you see in (the documentary) Wrestling With Shadows, he had this routine, it just was ingrained in him. Even at that age, it was just hold, the hold, the hold, the hold, this series of holds that just came naturally to him. When your hand would come near him, he would trap that hand and do something else. Every single time. The only thing that felt okay were the little (times) in between when he would transition.”
Once Stu the trainer was done, Stu the humantarian emerged.
“Then we’re all sitting together having Sunday dinner,” Wilson said with a chuckle.
Stu Hart’s trademark stretchings could come without notice, too, Wilson said, offering an example.
“We’re downstairs in the basement, playing around, and then Stu comes walking in and then (he would ask us), ‘You guys learn this hold?’ And then the next thing you’re like, ‘Oh my god!’ ”
Another time, Wilson said, the television network YTV came to film a segment and Stu Hart decided to demonstrate his stretching prowess for the cameras.
“I’ve tried finding the episode on YouTube and Google, I saw one split second of it once, it was Alpha to Omega, and Harry and I have this quick little one- or two-minute match on there,” Wilson said. “They wanted me to be some biker or something, so I’m wearing these little shorts and this little bodybuilding-style tank top with such thin straps. I remember Stu called Harry over and Harry dropped down and hid so then Stu called me over. I remember punching Harry in the ribs like, ‘You idiot.’ It aired in that episode but I’m getting stretched by Stu, in this little tank top on the cement. My back was getting all scraped up and I was like, ‘Harry, I’m going to kill you.’ “
Then there was Bret Hart, the most iconic and famous of the Hart clan. Bret was at the height of his fame then, but always made time to help those who would come after him, Wilson said.
“There was a while when Bret had a ring at his house and Teddy and I were going there every day after school. Every day. Some how, some way, we’d find a ride there. Bret would come and sit in his hot tub at certain times and just kind of watch what we were doing. And he kind of liked what we were doing because I think we had a little bit of a raw style to us.”
Around that time, Teddy’s brother, Matthew, died suddenly of flesh-eating disease. Following Matthew’s death, Davey Boy Smith and former WWE Canada president Carl DeMarco arranged a tribute match during a live event at the Saddledome in Calgary as part of a national tour by WWE, Wilson said.
“Carl DeMarco came up with the idea of us doing a tribute match,” he said.
Wilson said he believes it was that match, TJ versus Harry, that earned Bret’s respect from that point on.
“We had the match, and I think that’s when Bret realized, again not that we were good, but if nothing else we were super young and were hungry to try to watch and learn anything,” he said.
Wilson spoke fondly about his memories of Hart family members who are no longer with us.
“WrestleMania 12, Bret was bringing a bunch of family members,” Wilson recalled. “I remember being at Sunday dinner and Owen looked at me — and I was 15 — he was like, ‘Hey TJ, are you going to WrestleMania this weekend?’ And one of the other members kind of laughed. I said no. He said, ‘Oh, why not?; and I said, ‘Cause it’s in Anaheim and we live in Calgary.’ “
Later that night, Wilson got a call from Teddy Hart’s mother informing him that Owen would like to fly him to Anaheim for WrestleMania.
“On my flight was Stu, Helen, Matthew, Georgia, (and Bret’s sons) Blade and Dallas,” Wilson recalled, adding that somehow, he ended up with a first-class plane ticket. “I didn’t know what the hell that meant, this was the first flight I’d ever been on.” Family members asked Wilson to give up his first-class ticket to Stu. “I was like, ‘Of course, I don’t even know what this means. I’m still on the same flight as everyone else right?’ “
Owen Hart also flew Wilson to Vancouver for WWF In Your House 9: International Incident in July 1996.
But it was a request Owen made to Teddy and Wilson that still haunts Wilson a little, as to this day he said he still believes their failure to follow through may have been a disappointment to Owen.
“He wanted Ted and I to work on getting our (driver’s licences), but I think we kind of let him down with that because we were just a little too irresponsible at that time,” Wilson said, reflecting. “Like I said, Ted’s brother had passed away that summer.”
Besides that, Wilson revealed, a childhood incident with a car had left him traumatized at the thought of getting behind the wheel of a car.
“I was hit by a car when I was nine years old,” Wilson revealed, adding that the force “knocked me out of my shoes. I went flying.”
The driver on that fateful day had ran a red light, striking Wilson as he crossed the street, launching him into a nearby pole, which he hit his head on upon impact. “I don’t remember it, but the guy in a furniture store across the street saw it and he came and he was applying pressure (to my wound) with paper towel.”
If not for the good Samaritan’s actions that day, Wilson said, he might have died right there in the streets of Calgary.
“I just remember coming to (in the ambulance) and I saw my mom and I was like, ‘What happened?’ She said, ‘You got hit by a car.’ I couldn’t move my head. Later on (dotors) said that if the guy hadn’t been applying pressure, there was a chance I would have lost enough blood for some kind of brain damage. Thank god for his quick acting. The truth is, somehow I was totally fine.”
Except, that is, for apprehension to driving. “I was scared to drive for a little while, which is funny because when we’re not wrestling at night, we were full-time truck drivers. I wasn’t ready at that time.”
As a result, Wilson said, he believes he disappointed Owen Hart in the process.
“I think we kind of let Owen down,” Wilson said, “because he was saying, ‘If you guys study for your learners’ — he got us the little learners’ books, to read — he said, ‘Study it and when you guys get your driver’s licences, I’ll buy a car for you guys.’ “
Looking back, and given that a couple of years later Owen would die tragically in an accident at a show, Wilson said those feelings remain.
“I think that was too big a responsibility for us at that time,” he said. “I don’t think we made the wrong move, but I think we did kind of let him down a little. Owen was always so nice to us. Always.”
Wilson said that any time he watches old matches with Owen and Davey Boy, it brings back memories of his times with both.
“Always good memories,” he added. “Owen and Davey (were) so good to me. I don’t have any bad memories of either guy.”
Davey Boy Smith, much like Owen, took it upon himself to help out the young Wilson.
“Davey kind of took me under his wing in 1998-99. We’d work out together every day,” Wilson said, still kind of blown away by it when he thinks about it even now. “Here I am, just some skinny kid who’s 18, 19 and for whatever reason, Davey likes me and he’s kind of taken me under his wing.”
Much like Bret and Owen and Jim Neidhart, Davey Boy Smith was a big name in the WWE.
“We were working out seven days a week,” Wilson said. “I still continue to train seven days a week. A lot of people will talk about rest days, but Davey would be like, ‘Hey, you feel like training today or too sore?’ And I’d be like, ‘No, no, I’m good.’ He’s like, ‘All right, we’ll go in like an hour.’ It was weird. He was like this father figure that I subconsciously needed or wanted in my life.”
Not surprisingly, working out with a guy who had one of the best physiques in the world wasn’t easy.
“I remember these gruelling workouts, but I was getting bigger and I loved it. He would keep me motivated. He was like, ‘You’re getting stronger.’ Obviously I couldn’t keep up with him in terms of what he was lifting, but it was a cool feeling.”
And just like Owen, Davey was famous for his generosity.
“He gave me a couple of pairs of boots of his, one I still have,” Wilson said. “I wore the hell out of them, they’re beaten up from the both of us, but I still have them, with the tassels and stuff.”
Wilson credits his own generosity to that shown to him by Owen and Davey.
“I think that’s where I get a lot of my pay-it-forward attitude,” he said. “If I go eat with a group of friends, I have no problem picking up the tab. It’s something I got from Davey. He would pick up the tab for everybody all the time. And he would never be put out by it. He did so much for me that I would like to be able to do this one day for people as well. Just to do something nice for someone feels good. He was a big influence in a lot of ways for me.”
Then there was Jim Neidhart, who was a hero to Wilson both inside and outside of the ring, and whom Wilson spent more time with than anyone else in the family save for his wife.
“I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure (Jim) was the first of Teddy’s quote/unquote famous uncles who I met,” Wilson said. “He was living in Florida, but he came for a live event to Calgary and he worked out and stayed at (Teddy’s family’s) gym. So even though Bret lived in Calgary, I met Jim before I met Bret.”
“I always had a good relationship with Jim,” Wilson said of his late father-in-law. “There was never a cross word or bad feeling … ever.”
In fact, as he recovered from a near-fatal and career-ending neck injury, it was Neidhart who was at Wilson’s side much of the time.
“He would come over almost daily, but if not daily I would see him every other day when I was hurt. I had a great relationship with him.”
The two shared a love for the business, Wilson said.
“We would talk about wrestling a lot,” Wilson said. “He’d always give me funny advice. I remember him giving me advice before I went to Japan the first time about how to block these leg kicks. “
And for an intimidating and large man, Neidhart had a real sweet side, Wilson said.
“Every time I’d see him, he would say the same thing. He’d say, ‘Oh, you look great, you’ve been training hard.’ I would try to down play it, ‘Oh, a little,’ and he’d be like, ‘Not a little bit, a lot.’ He was very complimentary and funny. For a big, intimidating dude, his manners were impeccable.”
Following Neidhart’s death in August 2018, Wilson said there has been a noticeable void in their lives and their household.
“This year is going to be, especially for Nattie, the first everything. Even Thanksgiving, he’s always one who says grace and he’s not here to do that.”
For a family that has enjoyed so much success in the business, the Hart clan has also suffered so much loss, beginning with Dean’s death in 1990, Owen’s tragedy in 1999, followed in 2002 by Davey Boy Smith’s passing, Bret’s health issues, the deaths of Stu and Helen, and the death of the eldest Hart, Smith, from cancer.
Wilson rejected the notion that wrestling was the culprit behind Davey’s death of a heart attack.
“I saw (what happened to) Owen,” Wilson said, noting that Owen was clean and sober and still died in a tragic accident. “Owen’s is a different thing, because it was an accident and it was directly related to a show, so if you wanted to blame the business for it, you definitely can.”
But Davey Boy’s death, which was linked to past steroid use in a coroner’s report following his death, was different, in Wilson’s opinion. “I don’t think you can really blame on the business, or anybody else’s that is a result of years of abuse in terms of drugs or whatever. And I don’t mean that at all to be heartless.”
“I just think that we’re in control of our own lives. Obviously there are certain pitfalls and sometimes you’ve got to avoid them, and sometimes they kind of happen and almost overtake you without you knowing it. It’s hard to directly blame the business because I definitely don’t have any type of painkiller addiction. I know we’re in a different era, but I wrestled for 20 years a pretty hard style. I was never the big guy in any company I ever worked for. I always took all kinds of bumps.”
Wilson also said that things were done differently 30 years ago and that today’s wrestlers have learned from the mistakes of those in the past.
“It was a different lifestyle. In the ‘80s, before that explosion (of pro wrestling) in the ‘80s, I don’t think pro wrestlers had made this type of money and lived this type of lifestyle. A lot of times you were in a territory and you weren’t in New York, flying to L.A., flying to Florida, flying to Seattle, flying to Texas… you weren’t doing this type of schedule and making this type of money. So they started to live like rock stars. And then in the ’90s, we started to see the results. Everything takes a bit of time to really catch up to everything and I think that’s what we see in the locker room now, is the result of those before us. The guys in the locker room are playing videos games now. And that is not a bad thing. That is a great thing. The guys are playing video games and talking about working out. A lot of guys are into crossfit and are comparing workouts.”
For Wilson and Nattie, as well as other members of the extended Hart family, growing up in the environment in which they did, pro wrestling was a career no different than a teacher or mechanic might be in any other family. In fact, Wilson said, he never had any doubt that he would become a wrestler.
“It’s so weird,” he admitted. “I saw numerous, numerous, numerous guys in the wrestling camp in Calgary who I knew, and this sounds bad to say, wouldn’t make it. But for some weird reason and I said this in an interview I did with SLAM! Wrestling at one point … I don’t know what it was but there was something in me from 15, 16, 17 that didn’t leave me. I knew I was going to make it for some weird reason. I don’t fully know what it was. Obviously, being around Bret, Davey, Owen, Jim, seeing guys who’d been in that area and attained this stuff, gave it some kind of boost for sure, but I mean, look at Ross Hart, who loved pro wrestling and didn’t excel to that level. I mean, he’s a teacher and he’s had a great life and he’s a great person, but there was no guarantee.”
And when the time came for Wilson, exactly 10 years after he had his first match, that confidence paid off.
He got a WWE tryout on October 5, 2006, in the developmental territory Deep South Wrestling, wrestling Kofi Kingston. “I was real nervous during that tryout. When Nattie and I did our tryouts, (then WWE trainer) Bill DeMott was super friendly with both of us … he kind of looked out for us a little bit, he really helped me out with my promo, at least to be able to nail one down, enough to get signed.” Also on hand was veteran Dave Taylor, whom Wilson had wrestled in England; Taylor assured Wilson things had gone will. “(Taylor) told me that he’d never seen Bill write such a good email for somebody. He’s like, ‘You’re going to get signed.’”
Then, in November 2006, he did.
“I finally get signed,” Wilson said, adding that while he waited for his work visa to come through, DeMott was fired and replaced by Dr. Tom Prichard. “I come to Deep South, Brad Armstrong is there, who is just overall such a nice guy. I can’t say enough nice things about him.”
Prichard had a drill called Man in the Middle. “I had done Japanese training with Tokyo Joe – a ton – so this Man in the Middle drill was kind of like a technical drill and a blow-up drill, and Dr. Tom, just for his own thing, he would time it on a stopwatch and just write down times.” While it was not a competition, the next day, Prichard announced that there was a new standard: “TJ destroyed the record.”
The transition into WWE was made easier by the paths laid by Bret and Owen and others, Wilson said.
“It’s 2006, a lot of these guys who were there were inspired by Bret Hart, so they thought it was cool that Nattie and I were coming in, which helped a lot.”
Some, however, went out of their way to make them feel welcome, Wilson said.
“Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder, and I’ve never forgotten it, they were so cool that we’re still best friends to this day because they were cool to me on Day 1. These guys welcomed me with open arms.”
The first big push for Wilson came when he formed the Hart Dynasty with Nattie and Harry Smith, the son of the late Davey Boy Smith.
“So fun,” Wilson said when he was asked about the stable. “Unbelievable. We were wrestling Fit FInlay, who is one of the best of all time. In ECW, we were a little faction and there weren’t really any other tag-teams so we were wrestling random pairings but it was so fun. Then we got moved to Smackdown and we had a very endless feud with Cryme Tyme. We just wrestled them for six months on every tour possible. It was a good experience because it helped me be creative in matches without some kind of deep storyline. And wrestling the same guys for four or five or six months straight kept me sharp.”
The Hart Dynasty also helped usher in the once seemingly improbable return of Bret Hart to WWE. Following 1998’s infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” where Hart was cheated unexpectedly of the WWE World title, it was thought Hart would never again set foot in a WWE ring. But he and WWE were able to bury the hatchet, and McMahon opted to align the Hitman with the Hart Dynasty for his homecoming.
“That was unbelievable,” Wilson said. “It was on Raw, we were technically Smackdown, but to help make Bret feel more at home, obviously, they brought us into Raw that week. That was in Dayton, Ohio, which is were Harry debuted in ECW and where we formed the Hart Dynasty. Then it’s Bret’s return, January 2010, after 13 years — not including the Hall of Fame or the DVD — but on WWE television, in Dayton, Ohio, and I’m like, ‘What are the odds?’”
It was, Wilson said, “unbelievable.”
Wilson said he looks back with fondness at his time working with Nattie and Harry, and then Bret, and it remains a career highlight.
“In my career, I have a lot of great memories,” he said. “Harry and I wrestled DX a couple of times, one match on Raw and maybe DX’s only match on Smackdown. I could be wrong about that, but I’m pretty sure it was the Christmas epiosde, which was so much fun. We teamed with Bret in Germany on the second half of a European tour, which was a lot of fun. We did a six-man tag with Bret against the Nexus at Madison Square Garden. Then later on, I got to have a singles match with Harry. We’ve had plenty in our careers, but it was cool to do it on a WWE level and it was cool to do it on a WWE level in MSG.”
Another highlight for Wilson came when he went one-on-one with one of his idols: Rey Mysterio.
“It was Superstars when it was still on television, right before WrestleMania. We had like 15 or 16 minutes and I always remember, this is literally the Monday and then we were all going to Phoenix for WrestleMania 26, and Rey wanted to go all out.
“I didn’t have a WrestleMania match. I was in the battle royal. I didn’t know at the time we were doing anything with Vince and Bret, but Rey had a match with (CM) Punk and we went all out that day. It was so fun. I got to the back and Vince and Shawn (Michaels) both were there and gave me a standing ovation.”
It was a moment, Wilson said, he’ll cherish forever.
“If you’d have fired me right there, I’d have been cool with it,” he said. “Shawn is a guy that I really looked up to and of course, Vince. I’m thinking, ‘These guys are giving me a standing ovation so whatever happens from here is good.’ Bret was there that day because it was the go home Raw and we were going to Phoenix, and he loved the match with Rey. It was probably the one match I got the most mileage out of.”
From the time of his signing in 2006 until June 1, 2015, Wilson, as WWE’s Tyson Kidd, was a reliable if not dependent talent. In that time, the only time he missed any action due to injury was when he tore his ACL at the end of 2012, causing him to miss the only action of his career. Wilson said that longevity is something he prided himself on and it irks him to this day when he sees posts on social media or references in stories about him being “injury prone.”
“I don’t like when this narrative starts to form that I’m injury prone. I wrestled for 20 years. My neck was a completely freak thing. I tore my knee, which is not uncommon in wrestling whatsoever. I wrestled for 17 years, a very hard, athletic enough style, and I had one injury in 17 years. I tore it at the end of 2012 and then wrestled the next day. Sometimes when I’ll answer on Twitter, it’s that, when people try to claim I was injury prone. I’m absolutely not, I’m one of the furthest things from it.”
In a cruel twist, the very business that Wilson has loved since his childhood, and in the midst of an almost entirely injury-free career to that point, Wilson saw his career come crashing down, quite literally, almost costing him his life in the process.
During a match with Samoa Joe on June 1, 2015, Wilson was injured when Joe hit his “Muscle Buster” finisher, which sees Joe put his opponent up in the air, in a near small package, on his shoulder, then crashing backward to the canvas violently.
Perhaps even more cruel is the fact that Wilson wasn’t supposed to even be Joe’s opponent that night.
“The night of injury,” Wilson explained, “it was just one of those days where the show was being changed — up to the last minute — but the show was being changed and the next thing I know it’s me against Joe in a dark match.”
In a life-changing moment, Joe put Wilson up for his finisher at the end of the match and when they came crashing to the canvas, Wilson only remembers seeing a bright white light.
“I’d never worked Joe before,” Wilson said. “I’d of course seen him. I’m a student of the game, I’ve seen everybody. But I’d never physically worked him. When we landed on the Muscle Buster, I saw the whitest light I’ve ever seen. I thought it was a concussion for a second. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I did this whole match, completely on the fly, I pulled it off and then I get rocked at the end.'”
Wilson said he believes he had his hands in the wrong position for the finish.
“I have a picture and I think my hands are in the wrong position compared to other ones I’ve seen,” he said. “I wasn’t able to run through it with him (before the match).”
The white light was followed by the scariest seconds of TJ Wilson’s life.
“I drop, bang, and at first I saw this light and I was like, ‘Ah, man.’ And then my whole body went limp. It felt like it weighed a million pounds. I was completely paralyzed. I was paralyzed from the neck down,” Wilson explained.
The match continued as neither Joe nor the referee had any inkling of what had happened.
“We hit, however long it takes him to pin me 1, 2, 3, give it a beat and then I could move my fingers and toes,” Wilson said, recalling those few seconds. “It was probably five or six seconds. But time stands still. I knew because I was being pinned, but in terms of sense of time, it was out the window. If it had just happened and I’m just laying there, I would have had no clue, but since I was being pinned, I know it was only a matter of several seconds.”
His close friend and then tag partner, Cesaro, reached to pull him from the ring, also oblivious to Wilson’s dire situation. “Cesaro goes to pull me out of the ring and I said, ‘Don’t touch me.’”
As the seconds passed, Wilson began to regain feeling in his extremities. “I started to regain feeling. It was kind of like if you’ve ever been hit in the chin and you kind of feel fuzzy, that’s how I felt after. Finally, the feeling came back. Then I had the worst pain ever in my neck.”
Wilson was taken to a nearby hospital in San Antonio. Despite the excruciating pain in his neck and his detailed explanation of what had happened, Wilson said he remembers feeling like staff and doctors there weren’t taking his injury seriously when he came in.
“That might just have been me being sensitive because I was the one hurt,” Wilson said. “I had a neck brace on, but I was otherwise in pretty good shape and I came walking in on my own.”
Wilson knew deep down in his heart what was wrong.
“I knew my body so well, I knew I broke my neck,” he said.
Eventually, Wilson underwent and MRI and following a lengthy and painful wait, a doctor returned with an update. Wilson was asked to come with him and to lay down, that they would be cutting his shirt from his body.
“I said, ‘I can take it off,’ and he said, ‘No, no, no! Do not move.’ He took control of the situation and he said, ‘Sir, your disc hit your spinal cord, that’s why you saw that white light.’ ”
Wilson subsequently learned that the injury he suffered is commonly called a spinal cord concussion.
“I didn’t fracture my neck, I didn’t break it, but technically it’s actually worse. The ligament holding the C2 ruptured, so my disc hit my spinal cord,” Wilson said with a slap of his hands. “That’s what caused the temporary paralysis. You don’t have to sever your spinal cord to be paralyzed for life. You could just touch it and be paralyzed for life. There are different situations obviously.”
The doctor described the severity of Wilson’s situation: “Sir, you don’t understand, this is really bad.”
From there, he was transported to another hospital, one more equipped to deal with his injury. Once there, Wilson said, doctors were skeptical about the initial prognosis.
“They told me literally, 1% of people survive that injury (so they were skeptical of the diagnosis). Cesaro was there and he said, ‘Well, you don’t know him, he could be the 1%.’”
The second hospital then performed another MRI on Wilson’s injured neck.
At that point, Samoa Joe showed up to check on Wilson. “Joe came and told me he was sorry, which I knew. He was pretty emotional,” Wilson said.
Confusion reigned that night, Wilson said. “The first (hospital) said this and the next said it wasn’t possible that I could have that injury and still be walking. I wasn’t even in an actual room.”
It wasn’t until the next morning that Wilson’s worst fears were confirmed.
“The doctor comes in and these are his exact words: ‘Hey, your wrestling career is over, I’d like to do emergency surgery right now,’ ” Wilson said.
The news was gutting.
“I’m thinking, ‘Man, first off, you need to learn how to speak to people because that’s not how a conversation starts,’” Wilson said.
In the room, his wife, Nattie, spoke up. “Nattie said, ‘Hold on, are you the best?’ He said, ‘What do you mean?’ She said, ‘We work with WWE and we have access to the best doctors and surgeons and if you’re not the best, you’re not touching his neck.’ “
The surgeon admitted he was not among the best in his field. “And Nattie said, ‘All right, then you’re not touching him.’ “
An ensuing discussion revealed that the top surgeon happened to be located right in the same city Nattie and Wilson call home, Tampa, Florida.
It was decided.
“That’s where we’re going.”
The days that followed were filled with pain and agony, to go along with worry and fear.
“The back of my neck hurt,” Wilson said. “I always say, and this may not make sense to anyone else the way I describe it, but once the paralysis went away, I felt like this baseball was trying to come out of the back of my neck.”
Getting comfortable, Wilson said, was next to impossible. He tried out five different neck collars. “They all got a little bit more comfortable and the most comfortable one sucked and was the worst thing of all time. They all sucked. The back of my neck hurt but I wasn’t on any painkillers,” Wilson said.
Wilson was moved to a room until arrangements could be made to airlift him to Tampa to undergo surgery.
“They told me they were working on an airlift to get me to Tampa. This was Tuesday. Tuesday, they injected me with this blood thinner. Wednesday they also injected me with this blood thinner (to prep me to fly). And then Wednesday at about 4 or 5 p.m., I realized the work day was over and no airlift was coming today.”
Growing impatient, Wilson said he looked up some flight times and offered to jump on a commercial flight home.
“I was like, ‘Yo, there’s a flight in two hours and the airport’s 20 minutes from here and I’m going to be on that flight.’ And the guy was like, ‘Sir, we can’t let you leave. Airlift is designed for turbulence. There is no chance of other people bumping into you.’ ”
When that failed, he even offered to drive it, very, very slowly.
“I said, ‘I’ve mapped it on my phone, it’s a 15-hour drive, I’ll drive really carefully, I’ll make it in 20, I’ll drive really slowly.’ I wasn’t being belligerent, but I was starting to get agitated.”
Wilson said his impatience grew by the minute at times.
“I said, ‘Hey man, I’m not trying to be an a–hole, but this bed sucks, this TV sucks, I’ll have my wife check my vitals every hour, just like what’s going on here. The difference at home is I have a really nice bed and a really nice TV.’ ”
As he pestered, another doctor entered the room and proceeded to deliver words that Wilson will never forget as long as he lives.
“She said, ‘You have a very, very similar injury to Christopher Reeve, and the truth is your C2 is what controls your breathing. When it hit your spinal cord, you should have suffocated to death right there,” Wilson recounted.
He listened in stunned silence as she continued. “She said five percent of people survive this injury and of the five who do, 99% are paralyzed.”
Before he could even process what he’d been told, his first impulse was one of humour.
“I was like, ‘Hey, so when you were just talking to me, were you distracting me because I would swear they changed this bed because this bed just got super comfortable. My god, is that a new TV? Because that TV is badass.’”
Truth was, what he’d been told was anything but humorous.
“My little agitation had come to a screeching halt. Suddenlty I thought, ‘If it takes three weeks to get this airlift, it takes three weeks.’ I was at their mercy.”
The airlift came the next day.
Less than 24 hours after learning how close he’d come to paralysis, or worse, death, Wilson was back in Tampa, at yet another hospital, waiting to see what was next. Surprisingly, what was next was a trip home.
“The next morning, the doctor let me go home,” Wilson said, explaining that doctors initially wondered if the ligament would heal on its own. That plan quickly changed, however.
“It wasn’t a fracture,” Wilson said. “Any fracture in your body will start to heal. It may not heal correctly, but every fracture in your body, your body will naturally heal it, it will fuse it to something. This wasn’t a fracture, this was a ruptured ligament.”
The surgeon called him on the Monday after he was discharged from the hospital in Tampa.
“I want to see you tomorrow,” Wilson said he was told.
The next day, Wilson was told he would need surgery. There was a less than five percent chance that the ligament would heal on its own, according to his surgeon. “And then he painted a scenario for me as to how little stability my neck had. He said, ‘If the three of us are in a car right now and we get rear ended, we’re totally fine, meaning him and Nattie’s mom. You’re a giant risk.’ ”
The surgeon wanted to proceed sooner than later with the fusion operation, Wilson said, but Wilson wanted to put it off long enough for his mother to travel to Tampa to be at his side. The surgeon agreed on the condition that the neck brace stay on at all times.
The surgery was a success. Not long after, Wilson shared a photo of his scar, which runs vertically from the base of his skull down his neck, a permanent reminder of how close he came to paralysis or worse.
Wilson admitted that given the microscopic odds he overcame, and how everything played out as if it was meant to be, even the surgeon suggested there might have been a higher power at play in Wilson’s case.
“You have to think someone was looking out for you,” he said. “Surgery was scheduled for two hours, it went four and a half.” That was a Wednesday. On Friday, his surgeon came to check up on him, at which time they discussed just how fortunate Wilson was.
“He said, ‘Honestly, your head was a bobblehead when I went in there. It had way less stability than I thought.’ He said, ‘I don’t know your religious belief, but I have to think this is something,’ ” Wilson recalled.
The doctor also noted that TJ’s physical condition played a role in his survival and subsequent recovery.
“He said, ‘If I’m going to put this down as science and not just a miracle, I’d have to say it was all the muscle in your neck that stabilized everything. Otherwise it’s almost unexplainable. This is nothing short of a miracle.’ ”
The doctor also told Wilson that his spine was in otherwise perfect condition, despite a more than 20-year career in pro wrestling, which is notorious for its back injuries. “Again going back to those tweets … what are you talking about?” Wilson quipped.
Wilson said he has pondered how much longer his wrestling career could have continued given the great condition of his spine had he not suffered such a catastrophic injury.
“The flip side is it turned out I needed that strong and healthy spine because now that it’s fused, the rest of the discs take the brunt of any kind of physical activity I do.”
Post-surgery is when the reality – and severity – of Wilson’s situation set in. With Nattie on the road working the gruelling WWE schedule, and filming Total Divas on the side, there were long periods of time in which Wilson would be home by himself, with plenty of time to think.
“It came in waves,” Wilson recalled. “Sometimes I’d feel great and there were times when I felt like I was in some dark places, bitter and angry, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s natural.”
Wilson said he even began to question the surgeon’s “miracle” theory.
“I was thinking if this is some kind of miracle or if someone is looking out for me, there’s got to be some kind of reason,” he said.
Wilson revealed that his darkest days following his injury coincided with the shortened days of winter in Tampa.
“In Tampa, it’s not that cold but it gets dark early here compared to Calgary. That first little while was brutal … with the neck brace … absolutely brutal. I don’t wish that on anybody. I mean I don’t wish any injuries on anybody, but I really don’t wish that neck brace on anybody. There was a while, man …” he said, his voice trailing off.
There was also a period of time, he said, when doctors suggested a second surgery might be necessary.
“I went to the doctor and he said that the bone growth over the fusion was slow and he didn’t know why and he was hoping to see more. That let me down a lot,” Wilson said. “He was almost insinuating that if by the next appointment, if it hadn’t grown more, we might have to redo it, which was horrible.” Fortunately, a second surgery was never required.
Not even wrestling, the very thing Wilson had lived and breathed for much of his life, could shake him from his despression.
“I was trying to watch wrestling, but it was tough. It really was super tough,” Wilson said, admitting that the combination of wrestling being what led to his injury and not being able to wrestle again created a tug-of-war between his brain and his heart.
Wilson said he began drinking more and taking care of himself less as time wore on. One day bled into the next.
“I just would try to fill up my time literally playing video games,” he said. “I have this room upstairs and I would literally be playing video games all night. I wasn’t drinking like a mad man, but I’d be drinking a bunch of beers up there while I was playing and the next thing I knew it was like 7 a.m. and I’m coming out of that room and the sun’s coming up. It was this horrible cycle. And obviously there are people with much worse stories than that. But for me, that was as bad as it got. Physically that was probably as bad as it got.”
Days turned into weeks, weeks into months and before he knew it, a year had passed.
“Even then, a year later, I was having a hard time getting my body back,” Wilson said. “(It was almost like I was) coasting through life or like I’d lost or had misplaced my purpose in life. I mean I was getting paid every week. That was cool, but I was not on the road. I was used to a very specific lifestyle.
“Before I got hurt, I was on the road five days a week and then I’d come home for a day and a half. And some of those times, I’d be filming Total Divas, so at some point I was working seven days a week, which I was cool. I loved it. And then you go from that to zero. It’s a hell of a shell shock. It took a long time to kind of come to grips with it. It took a long time to get out of that and be like ‘Okay, I’ve gotta do something,’ but I guess, especially initially, I didn’t know what it was.”
As his body attempted the impossible — to heal itself from an unhealable injury — Wilson struggled to stay in shape. For his entirely life, Wilson had been used to being in peak physical condition, but his injury changed that.
“To all of a sudden go from feeling almost invincible to being temporarily paralyzed to then having rods and screws in my neck and not really being able to move around to seeing my body change, I definitely, definitely, definitely did not feel myself at all. I remember filming Total Divas and we went on this vacation with Mandy Rose’s family. It was August/September and it was hot out and I didn’t want to take my shirt off in the Florida sun. I was so self-conscious. I was like, ‘This is not me.’ I felt like I’d inherited somebody’s almost broken-down body.”
It wasn’t for another five months – closing in on two years from the time he was injured – that Wilson found his turning point. It came while watching the 2017 Super Bowl with friends, binging on pizza and chicken wings. A friend, noting that Wilson wasn’t in the peak form he once proudly displayed, issued a challenge.
“He said, ‘Hey, by next year, I’m going to have a better body than you. I’m going to beat you in a bodybuilding contest,’” Wilson recounted, adding that his friend was young and had just began working out.
Not even a life-threatening neck injury could rob Wilson of his competitive nature.
“I was like, there is no way,” he said.
The two jousted verbally over who could produce the better physique by the following year.
“I’m very competitive when it comes to some things,” Wilson said, noting that that harmless yet fateful challenge proved to be the catalyst he needed to get his life back on track. In fact, later that night, buzzed from beers and with a belly full of pizza and wings, Wilson hopped on the treadmill and began his journey back.
“I needed something to compete in,” he said. “I know it sounds weird but it was kind of a weird turning point and when I did that hour of cardio feeling like shit, I was like, ‘Okay, I know I can bounce back.’ “
As the emotional wounds inflicted by the loss of his wrestling career healed, along with his body, Wilson again began to enjoy his first love, wrestling. He began watching it again, including his own matches.
“For a while when I was injured, I had a lot of friends come visit me so we would watch a bunch of my matches,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he was able to revisit some of the more enjoyable runs in his career in WWE.
“That last year of my in-ring work, I think I got to show a lot of people a lot of versatility, from my stuff in NXT to my stuff with Cesaro,” he said. “I did a lot of cool stuff before that too, but a lot of times it’d be on Superstars or Main Event or even NXT prior to the move to Full Sail (University).”
“I definitely reflected a lot on my career while I was injured.”
The cruel irony for Wilson is that if you look at him today, he’s in the best shape physically of his life, and at first glance, you’d swear he was in peak pro wrestling form.
“I do feel great,” he admitted. “I train every day and I try to eat right as many days a week as possible.” It’s a funny thing, he said, before the sober reality of his injury brings him crashing back to Earth. “But at the same time, I also know that I feel great right now due to staying in shape.”
And whenever the temptation to step back into the ring comes on, Wilson thinks back to those few seconds inside the ring when he and Joe crashed down to the canvas and he couldn’t move.
“When I was temporarily paralyzed, for about five seconds, all I hoped was, ‘Please regain everything,’” Wilson said.
It’s those five seconds that keep him out of the ring and that keep him on the path he’s now headed down.
“It put a lot of things into perspective,” he said. “Even though I do feel great right now, there is a chance that if I were to try to wrestle that I might reinjure myself. It might not be in that first match back and may not be in that second match back, but there is a chance,” he said.
“There’s always a chance of (injury),” Wilson added, “but maybe my odds are maybe a little greater that that chance exists and maybe I do something more permanent. I mean you can’t really get too much more permanent than what I’ve got, but it can be a lot worse.”
The final stage in Wilson’s comeback came in the form of forgiveness. Wilson never blamed Samoa Joe for his career-ending injury, nor did he harbour any bitterness toward his WWE colleague, but for both of their sakes, closure was needed. After all, Wilson said, injuries are very much a part of a wrestler’s career.
“There’s an unwritten protocol when you hurt somebody,” Wilson explained. “And when I say you hurt somebody, obviously it’s not on purpose, but it still happens. I know I’ve rocked guys before where I checked on them after to make sure everything’s cool.”
Now, more than ever, Wilson said, it’s easy to reach out to someone to check on their status.
“Twenty years ago, it might have been hard, but with texting and stuff now, you can stay in contact pretty easily.”
Following his injury, Wilson said he and Joe stayed in contact.
“Joe did come to the hospital that night,” he said. “We spoke that night. We would text throughout the time I was hurt, but I only saw him face to face when I got hurt and when I did see him that night, things were still up in the air with the severity of my injury.”
Wilson immediately absolved Joe of any blame for his injury.
“He was definitely remorseful and I think we all are when we hurt somebody and when somebody gets hurt under our watch. Stuff happens. We perform at such a high level so many days a week that things are going to happen. We just have to do the best we can to take care of each other and to let a person know that we’re there for them when they do get hurt.”
Wilson, who has himself tweeted that he harbours no ill will toward Joe, sought the man himself out on his first day back in WWE, working behind the scenes, two years after his injury.
“My first day back as a producer after two years, once I was out of meetings, he was the first guy who I Terminator-style sought out and found. And we had a very good talk and we’re friends. We get along great.”
Wilson added that the most humbling part of his recovery came in the form of the support he received from the moment he arrived at the hospital that night and throughout his recovery.
“That was something I will never forget. When I got hurt, how many people reached out,” he said, adding that he got texts and calls from people whose numbers he didn’t even have programmed into his phone. “You never forget that. I will never forget that.”
As Wilson cranked up his self-imposed training and his love for pro wrestling returned, he knew it was time to go back to work. Around the same time of the fitness bet with his friend, Wilson opened the lines of communication with WWE, which had been paying him since he was injured.
“I finally stopped being super stubborn,” Wilson admitted. “Once I actually opened up communication with WWE, it made me feel better. I was like, ‘Oh man, I’m an idiot. I should have dealt with this from the start.’ But sometimes we need to go through our stuff to kind of see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Once he began discussing a return to WWE, Wilson said, the discussion turned to “in what capacity” he would return. Wrestler was not an option. That’s when WWE Chairman Vince McMahon approached Wilson with a proposal. He thought Wilson, with his vast knowledge of the business, lifelong experience and deep understanding of WWE itself, would make a great producer.
“That was his idea,” Wilson said. “He thought I’d be good at it or I could get good at it.”
Producers work with WWE talent on matches, and work closely with WWE brass. It’s an incredibly important role within WWE, one essentially held by McMahon himself.
“(McMahon) said to me, ‘You’ll be like me.’ ”
Wilson wasn’t sure at first what he meant. McMahon explained that he gets to enjoy the matches from the monitor and get fulfillment out of seeing wrestlers do a great job, returning ecstatic with their performances.
Wilson himself wasn’t so sure, at least at first.
“I didn’t know if I’d be good at it and I didn’t know what all it entailed. I didn’t know if I would get any real fulfillment out of it. But right off the bat, maybe two weeks in, I was a part of a battle royal and I had an idea that Tye Dillinger would be one of the last three guys. I thought his ‘10’ stuff was getting over and I thought it would be good and he could have a good showing. I’ve been given those same things where maybe you’re not being super featured but they throw you a little something and then see what happens out of it.”
“The audience was completely with (Dillinger),” Wilson said. “When he came back, he was happy and I felt that fulfilment (McMahon referred to), which now I’ve felt a million times over. I love my job. I’ve been doing this now almost a year and a half and I haven’t taken a week off yet.”
Most importantly, Wilson said, is he’s smiling again.
“I’m most happy that I found happiness in a different role that’s still involved in what I’ve done my whole life,” Wilson admitted. “There was a time where, like I said, I wasn’t really watching that much and I didn’t really get much joy out of watching. It was just too hard. I didn’t get enjoyment out of watching it. So I’m happy that I saw the light and that I was able to get through that.”
Wilson is a producer on Monday Night Raw and often works with the likes of Dolph Ziggler and Seth Rollins, but also savours the chance to work with the WWE women, who are revolutionizing the business right now.
“We gel well,” Wilson said of himself and the female talent. “I get where they’re coming from. It’s really cool because there have been a few of them that I’ve literally seen it click right there while we’re talking. I’ve seen it click for them and then they’re off to the races. They don’t really need me after that. I trained Nattie how to wrestle and I helped her with a million matches so I understand how to kind of work with the women, maybe not to the degree of Fit (Finlay) because he’s been doing it forever and he molded that entire division from scratch basically. But I think I’m not a bad apprentice.”
As an employee of WWE versus a contracted talent, Wilson is enjoying previously unavailable possibilities, including the odd booking for a meet-and-greet and the freedom to seek out other ventures. In his case, that includes starting his own health supplement company, Workhorse Fitness, which he founded this past summer.
The same friend who challenged him to a physique contest—naturally, TJ won—suggested to Wilson that he look into launching his own line of products.
“He had been contacted by a couple of fitness people for me to either get paid or give me some supplements in exchange for some social media stuff. He looked into it and said, ‘Hey, what if you were to start your own? And right away I said no.’ ”
On further examination, Wilson was convinced, but on one condition.
“(The product manufacturers) had different tiers of quality and I said, ‘Okay, if we do this, it’s got to all be top quality. I’m not putting out anything that’s not top quality.’ ”
Workhorse has launched a line of BCAAs, preworkout, clothing and a fat burner supplement to date, with more products forthcoming, Wilson said.
“It’s been really awesome so far. It’s done really well. We are working on protein right now. We now have a couple different flavours of the of the BCAAs and the preworkout. And we have the fat burner, Melting Pot, which is awesome. It’s been a lot of fun.”
These days, Wilson doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on his injury or the dark days that once plagued him. Instead, he is focused on his new role with WWE, Workhorse Fitness and whatever else the future holds. But he did admit that he has from time to time given some thought to his legacy.
He said he’s read many tweets and comments from fans and others who often say he was never given a fair shake in WWE or given the proverbial ball to run with.
“I see that a lot, and then of course I’ll see negative comments,” he said. “The truth is in the middle somewhere.”
Wilson himself said he believes he achieved everything he ever fantasized about when he was a kid.
“I think I did well for myself,” he said. “In ’06 when I got signed, there weren’t many guys under 200 pounds who got signed and I think I outdid anything I was ever expected to do. I was told many, many times I would never make it, but I knew I wasn’t giving up and I knew I was just going to keep working and keep working and keep working. I definitely appreciate the comments.”
Wilson admitted he will always wonder what could have been if things had turned out differently.
“I do wish my career had kept going,” he said. “I think sometimes people think that we know everything in advance. We don’t. As I was living it, I was curious to see where Cesaro and I were going. I’d kind of made more of a blip than I’d made the first time I was tag team champions with Harry (Smith).”
That said, Wilson said he’s at peace with everything that’s happened to him and is grateful to be alive, walking and pain free about 95% of the time, against staggering odds. He also said he has a new outlook on things thanks to his new role. In fact, he said, the legacy he leaves behind might now be unfolding before our very eyes.
“I don’t know if it breaks my heart to say it or not, but I feel like my legacy might be more behind the scenes than it ever was in the ring,” he admitted, with a sense of calmness in his voice. “That feels kind of funny for me to say because I spent so much time in the ring and trying to perfect every movement that I ever did. But I think when it’s all said and done, my legacy might be more behind the scenes than in the ring.
“I’m so proud of everything I did in the ring. Not every match was a home run, but if you go back and watch my in-ring stuff and watch my career, I’m very proud of it. I think bell to bell, in-ring work, I’d put it up against a lot of people’s work. But at the same time, I think I’ve hit something that’s working for me backstage and working for me with the talent. I think my legacy is being built now and I think it is going to overshadow what I did in the ring.”