An early fascination with the sport has led a 25-year-old Norfolk, VA, resident to Union County as he works to expand his pro wrestling career.
Joey Leone grew up in Duluth, MN, which is located on the countryside of Saginaw. He discovered pro wrestling on television around age seven, and because he was also a fan of rock music, he was naturally drawn to a tag team called The Headbangers.
“I did all their mannerisms and had their t-shirts,” Leone laughed.
In 1998, Leone became a fan of wrestler and former college football and NFL star Bill Goldberg, and in 2002 — at age 15 — he decided to try his own hand at pro wrestling.
“My buddy Josh and I saw a commercial on our local public access TV station for a wrestling school — Wild on Wrestling — with head trainer Wild Bill Irwin,” Leone said, pointing out that his trainer had experience in WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment), WCW (World Championship Wrestling) and the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance). “Naturally, being huge fans, we went to train with him.”
“He beat the crap out of us,” Leone smiled. “Not to the point of injury, but he definitely let us know what the business was about. We trained with him three nights a week — Monday, Wednesday and Saturday — for hours. Being the skinny kids we were, he’d always say ‘Get in the gym boys, get in the gym.’ Surprisingly, we both worked our first matches in Chippewa Falls, WI only three months after we started training.”
Once he started training, Leone became a fan of wrestling from the past and began to admire wrestlers such as Bruiser Brody, Owen Hart, “British Bulldog” Davey Boy Smith and Magnum T.A.
After a few years, Leone put his pro wrestling career on the back burner in order to serve his country.
Leone enlisted in the U.S. Navy in April 2006 — at the age of 19 — as a Gas Service Turbine Mechanic (GSM).
“The reason I joined the military was mostly because after high school I was working the morning shift at the local gas station and was attending Fon Du Lac Community College in Carlton, MN,” he said. “I had night classes and the drive from my hometown in Duluth to school was roughly 30 minutes. After work I would go home and sleep and when it was time to go to school, I just never had the motivation to go, so the military was the ‘easy way out.’ Of course I soon realized that it wasn’t easy at all, but even though I had a lot of struggles and had to learn the hard way on a lot of things in the military, I’m thankful I did it. I grew up, matured, learned responsibility, saw some cool places overseas and met a handful of lifelong friends.”
He said boot camp consisted of 12 long weeks in Great Lakes, IL, and when he graduated he was stationed in Norfolk, VA on the USS Bainbridge.
“As the new guy I did a lot of janitorial work and the jobs that nobody else wanted,” Leone said. “I had to crawl in small spaces to get dropped parts or crawl under pipes and deck grating to wipe up oil. I did that for about a year while I was also spending my free time to learn my job and advance.”
Leone repaired and maintained six gas turbine engines, as well as various mechanical, rotary and hydraulic pumps. He was also part of the ship’s fire fighting team — which was called “The Flying Squad” — and was an assistant command fitness leader.
In March 2007, Leone was advanced from an E-3 fireman to an E-4 third-class petty officer.
“The advancement also gave me more responsibility and less of the ‘dirty work,’” he said. “I continued to learn more about the job and in January 2008 I was put into a supervisor position in the engine room I worked in. As a third-class petty officer that was pretty uncommon, but my hard work and knowledge paid off I suppose.”
The following March, Leone was advanced again from E-4 third-class petty officer to E-5 second-class petty officer, which he said is also an uncommon advancement in just two years.
Another major event in Leone’s military career took place on April 12, 2009.
“On my second deployment off the coast of Somalia, we were searching for Somali pirates when we received a distress call from the Maersk Alabama, a supply freighter that had their captain, Richard Phillips, captured,” Leone recalled. “I didn’t really have anything specific to do with Capt. Phillips’ rescue, but just being there for the three days it took to get him back was quite an experience.”
It was the first successful pirate seizure of a ship registered under the American flag since the early 19th century.
Leone left the U.S. Navy in 2011, and he is currently focused again on his wrestling career. He said he is glad he was stationed in Norfolk because he has found several wrestling organizations nearby which are currently thriving.
“This has really been an amazing place to wrestle in,” he said. “Everyone is always trying to help one another get better.”
What are Leone’s goals from this point?
“Well, the biggest goal, of course, is to make it to the big show, get a WWE contract and become a regular for a few years,” he said.
Leone also discussed his short-term goals in wrestling.
“This year, I want to branch out to more states and work more events than I did in 2011,” he said, pointing out that he has already begun this process as he debuted in South Carolina on Feb. 4 for the Union-based Trans-South Wrestling. “Overall, my goal is to give something to the business that will be remembered.”
Leone said he is thankful for those who have helped him along the way.
“I am forever grateful to ‘Wild’ Bill Irwin for giving me my start and letting a skinny, punk teenager learn the craft of pro wrestling,” he said. “I still keep in touch with him and continue to get advice from him.”
Leone is also thankful for his family.
“I’m thankful for my beautiful wife, Nikki, and I have one sister, a niece and a nephew who are almost like my own kids,” he said. “My brother-in-law is the one who influenced me to get in the gym, and I trained with him for about four years when I still lived at home. I owe everything to my family. They have always supported me no matter what it was I was doing, and they have always believed in me.”
Leone is also the co-host of a pro wrestling podcast called Your.Wrestling.Show, along with Zak Hilton, Justin Wilson and Sean Hood.
“We are making the push to really get the word out about independent wrestling,” he said.
The podcast is free on iTunes, and fans can search “yourwrestlingshow” or listen live each Monday at 8 p.m. The show can also be found at facebook.com/yourwrestlingshow or on Twitter @yws4life.
Local wrestling fans can see Leone in action live on March 3 at the Union County Fairgrounds during Trans-South Wrestling’s next event. The featured main event of the evening will be a heavyweight title match between champion Deon Johnson and challenger Ernest “Dirty” Robinson.