Interviewing professional wrestlers is an enjoyable benefit of running this website. Normally, the excitement would center on questions on their in ring careers and backstage stories. This was not the case when we spoke with former ECW and WWE Diva, Dawn Marie; for although she worked with some of the iconic stars of Extreme Championship Wrestling and performed for two and a half years for Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment it was her post wrestling career that we were anxious to discuss with her.
When many think of post wrestling careers a myriad of images may come to mind, both positive and negative. At the brightest end of the spectrum is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who parlayed a dynamic personality into a very successful acting career. Sadly, Johnson is the exception to the rule as many wrestlers struggle once their career winds down. Exit strategies are not common thoughts among the performers, and like other athletic professions, there is a limited life span in which they can work.
Professional Wrestling is not like other sports, and we are not talking about its scripted nature. Performers are set up as independent contractors and while money can be good for some, they are often not properly educated of the tax implications, nor do they receive an income that is remotely consistent. They are weekly television stars; often more recognizable than actors on regular network programming, yet they are not paid the same amount. Wrestling matches may have predetermined winners and losers, but the injuries they suffer while performing their craft is very real. Many work through these injuries and make them considerable worse as this is the only way that many know how to earn a living.
Dawn Marie has seen this first hand. She has worked with or seen virtually every major name professional wrestler of the past fifteen years; some of which were at the beginning of their careers, others at their end. The wrestling business may be known as a unique fraternity, but it has never been known for its ability to take of its own. Dawn Marie looked to change this.
In 2008, she established a foundation called Wrestler’s Rescue, which as the name suggests, is designed to help wrestlers in need of financial assistance. In chatting with Dawn, we learned of her motivation, her mission and how she hopes to help all of the men and women who have entertained so many in the squared circle. While learning of her efforts, we could not help but be moved by her kindness and generosity and desire to make a difference.
The first thing that I have to do is commend you. As part of an industry that is not exactly known for its charitable work, you have created something to give back. Do you know when you had that “A-ha” moment when you realized that this was what you wanted to do after you done with the business?
“No, I was already done with the business. In 2005, I had my son and then about two years later I decided that I wanted to go back is some way; basically do some autograph signings and things like that. I was at a show in Chicago at a convention, and I was sitting there with my friend, Michelle. We were watching the Iron Sheik who was sitting at the table across from me, and he was falling asleep at the booth. At first, the wrestler in me found it funny, and then the human in me just took over. He was seventy years old, and he has to still sit there doing autographs. I pitied it. About an hour later, he was being pushed in a wheelchair by his agent in front of me and he said to me “Donna Marie”, which is what he has always called me since I first started in the business, “Would you still watch Sheikey’s table, while I go the men’s room?”. I said “Of Course”. It triggered in my head again, that this man is living his life in a wheelchair because he needed a double knee replacement. In any other business, if you needed a double knee replacement because of your career choice you would be fixed. Why is this man in the most private, most intimate thing that a human being does (going to the bathroom) have to be assisted by his agent because of his career?”
So basically that was the moment for you?
“Yes. It just boggled my mind. It was ridiculous. It just brought out the mother in me. It just disgusted me at that moment. I remember saying to my friend, Michelle that this has to stop. I have seen it so much, just too many times. The wrestler in me was raised in me to think “Well, that’s what it is”. That is what we are bred to believe, and you just don’t think about it again.”
At that moment were you having flashbacks of all the people that you worked with. Was it like a floodgate coming back?
“Yes it was. I figured that God gave me a brain, and at that time I was going through a depression as I really missed the business. I figured that this was my calling. I’m smart, and this is something that I really feel passionate about, and maybe I can make a difference. I have a great reputation in the business, and I am going to make a change. What was the worst thing that could happen? I try, and nothing happens but at least I tried.”
So when you decided that this is what I am going to do, what was the first obstacle, or what were the obstacles that you had to overcome? As you mentioned, your reputation was stellar, so it was not a matter of getting support from your peers, but nothing like this had ever been attempted before. Was it met with skepticism or apathy or were you met with a warm embrace?
“At first, I went to a lot of the veterans. As I was going back to the signings, I went to as many veterans as I could. I asked permission, as weird as that sounds because this is not my business; it is their business. Who am I to exploit their business? In a way, it was going to get exploited a little bit because a lot of the negatives would come out as we were fixing it.”
That makes a lot of sense as with everything I have read, and with the other wrestlers that I have talked too that respect is a very large part of your industry; more so than in other professions.
“The business is built on respect and it supposed to be. It has changed a lot, but I was brought in very old school. So I went to Terry Funk and I told him my idea and I asked him what he thought about it. He just put his arms around me and said “Darling, I think this is a great idea. Thank You”. I went to George ‘The Animal” Steele and asked him the same thing and he gave me his approval. I went to many people. I went to the president of the Cauliflower Alley Club and they said they were willing to work with us shoulder to shoulder. I spoke with the people at the Wrestling Hall of Fame and they said they would work along with us. I did that for good three or four months, really just to see if this idea was crazy or not. After that, Michelle and I started working really hard at building a brand. I would say that the hardest obstacle though was getting the non-profit (status) because people don’t understand what wrestling is.”
So that would be the biggest obstacle you faced?
“Absolutely. They wanted me to include all wrestlers: Amateur Wrestlers, Olympic Wrestlers, and that wasn’t going to fly. It took almost two years and a lot of money.”
I can’t even imagine the legal fees involved in something like that.
“It was a lot, believe me. This has all been a labor of love”
When you started this was there a person you had in mind to help? You had mentioned the Iron Sheik, but is this to be a process of helping wrestlers one at a time? I know that right now you are in the middle of a campaign to help out Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka.
“Well, as mentioned the first step was to build a brand. Everyone who helps here, works for free, as we are dollar poor. All money raised is 100% given to the cause. No one gets paid. Or first campaign was with “Dr. Death” Steve Williams, and we happened to raise $9,000 for him.”
I can imagine that at this point that his medical bills were piling up? (Williams was suffering from throat cancer)
“We were originally trying to raise money for a hands free device for him (to help him speak), but then his cancer unfortunately came back. We switched gears and said to him, if you need some money to pay some medical bills we can do that. You see, the money never goes to the person; the money goes right towards the medical bills. Sadly, some people do desperate things in desperate times. With “Doc”, we directly paid some bills for him.”
Was there any doubt that Williams would be the first person that you would help? Certainly “Dr. Death” was an iconic figure in wrestling, a hero to many and his bout with cancer was certainly well known. Was this person that you thought that you would help first, or were there others in mind?
“There was this young lady in North Carolina named Melanie. She kept writing me, sending me e-mails. At that point, I had never really met “Dr. Death; of course I knew who he was. Well, I did meet him once and it was just a “Hello, I’m Dawn Marie, glad to meet you” and then went on to the next person. My first conversation with Doc was “Hi, I’m Dawn Marie, I don’t know if you know of Wrestler’s Rescue, but we would like to help you.”. Because of this young lady’s persistence (Melanie), he (Williams) became our ‘George Washington’, as I like to call it.”
From Steve Williams, who was the person you looked to help next?
“Now it’s Jimmy Snuka.”
So specifically, he is the second.
“With a campaign, yes. But we have helped many people. Some things are personal, so we do not advertise them. Like, well this is not too personal, like Sam Houston. His home got hit with a hurricane and he did not have food or water or anything like that. We do some work with Aloha Foods. We had Aloha Foods send him two big packages of food for him and his family. We don’t need to advertise that and put it on our website. We had another young lady that was in the wrestling industry and her boyfriend of many years passed away. She had some legal issues and didn’t have money for a lawyer. We got her a lawyer, pro bono. We do a lot of little things like that. Another is when Captain Lou (Albano) passed away. His family knew there would be problems as they knew he would pass on a couple days before and they called us and said “Dawn, can we write up a press release and get everything ready to go”. They gave me a list of people that they wanted me to call so they didn’t have to hear it from the news or newsletters. As soon as he passed away, I called Vince (McMahon) and the others on the list so that they didn’t have to hear it from the sheets, and then I put out the press release. I worked with the WWE to coordinate the press releases. I then helped to field all the news and media, so his family didn’t have to deal with that.”
Do you find now that your phone is ringing off the hook with people looking for assistance?
“I don’t think that they (wrestlers) know how much we are willing to do. I think they are starting to know about it more. I wish my phone was ringing more. The worst I can say is that I can’t help you, but I know someone that can.”
This is actually a learning experience for me, as I didn’t know that you were doing as much as you are.
“Right now we are looking for a grant writer, as we are looking for an education program. It would work like this; let’s say I use Billy Gunn as an example. I don’t know why I always use him as an example but I always do! Let’s say Billy Gunn says “I don’t want to wrestle anymore. I am getting older, and I want to do something else.” I would say “OK, Billy. What do you want to do? Pick a trade.” If he responds with electrician, I would find a school an hour radius of his home that will donate a fee to a 5013 charity. He gets to go to school for free, and then we have a two year program that follows with a business plan built in that will help him find a job in that trade. Now, if you don’t find a full time job within two years they have to pay that school back. It’s called accountability. If they quit the school before the two years are done, they have to pay the school back. We’re not handing out lollipops here.”
You have that ready to go?
“No, not yet. We are looking for a grant writer so we can get that put together.”
One of the people I have had the pleasure of talking to on our site was Mick Foley, one of his life lessons was his ability to save money. Do you find that one of the things that you are looking to do in the future, is educating the current wrestlers, especially those in the larger promotions, about saving the money that they do get?
“It could be a thought in the future. Right now, we just put together a disability program which will be launched in the next couple weeks. I am also working on an insurance program which should be together in the next month. Those are my top priorities. After that, would be the education program.”
That sounds amazing. I have to ask, just because of the nature of our website, you were in the WWE from 2003 to 2005 correct?
So you would have been there when they brought back the Hall of Fame and Hall of Fame ceremonies. Was this something that when it came back, meant something to the workers, or does it have a meaning now that it did not really have before?
“I don’t really know. I think that to be inducted in the Hall of Fame; if you are in this business, you want to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. You want to leave this business knowing that you changed it in a positive way. It’s like any athlete; you didn’t make it unless you were inducted in the Hall of Fame.”
Do you think many in the business that the WWE Hall of Fame IS the Hall of Fame in wrestling, or would it be the Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame in New York?
“I think it’s both. As much as people want to say they hate Vince, he’s still Vince McMahon of the WWE. It is still the one we all grew up watching, wanting to be on. He’s still the NFL of wrestling. He’s still the one that we want to be recognized by, you know what I’m trying to say?
Totally. We have received a similar answer from other wrestlers on the same question.
“It’s politics. We know it’s all politics, but we still want it.”
You can help Jimmy Snuka and Dawn Marie’s worthy foundation by going to www.wrestlersrescue.org