Combat Zone Wrestling’s DJ Hyde has had a love of professional wrestling for nearly forty years. As the long-time owner of the company, he has seen it change and develop, while creating a number of different wrestling stars known the world over. He is a near twenty-year veteran of the sport and has just as much desire to see the company succeed as he ever has. While proud of the achievements and recognition CZW has had over the years, he is equally fond of those he stood behind and mentored along the way, with their success a testament to the commitment of the talent, and him. He takes the training of his students incredibly seriously and still does to this day. Hyde has seen the company take part in tours all over the world while continuing to assess how the company can continue to move forward and flourish. ‘The Lariat’ is as committed today as he ever was as a wrestler, promoter, and businessman
During our chat, Hyde opened up about what he wished he had during his early training to become a wrestler, the benefits of training in the industry at a younger age, why he initially took over the promotion, and who are among the next crop of talent that fans who may not be familiar with independent wrestling really should keep an eye on.
Fans can communicate with DJ Hyde on social media such as Twitter, where he can be reached at @DJHyde_1 and CZW Wrestling’s primary Twitter account @combatzone
Before wrestling, football appears to have been a passion for you growing up. What was it about football that drew you to it, and can you draw any parallels between competing on the field and in the ring?
For me, I was definitely a sports-related guy when I was growing up, I pretty much played every single sport that I could. I think for anyone that knew me or saw me, I am a pretty large human being. Football just came naturally as I was gifted at it, it worked really well for me. When I was younger in school it provided me many opportunities. I have won state championships and I have gotten many accolades as a football player. Unfortunately, it came to an end because of an injury early in my life. It was time to move on.
As for comparisons to wrestling, obviously, there are many great comparisons. Any number of professional sporting activities have comparisons with wrestling, whether it’s the work ethic and things along those lines. It made wrestling more natural for me. The weird part about it is that at this point in my career I wish I had found wrestling earlier that is actually physically doing it rather than just being a fan of it.
Why did you feel training so young would have been beneficial to you?
I didn’t start training for wrestling until I was about 19 and really getting into it. I have students now in my school that are 15. When I was younger I feel like I would have had a better path, I would have had a better position in my life as a person. To start younger is better because you develop those habits and as you become an adult you are able to make decisions based on the fact that you are an adult. Compared to when I was growing up, to how it is now, (and man am I sounding really old. (laughs) I have been wrestling for almost two decades now. It is one of those things where you are watching guys that started when they were 13.
Guys like Tyler Bate are out there, and I would do my seminars out there years ago and I remember him, he was just a little kid, and get to see them and say ‘hello’ to them here and there and watching how young these guys are. Guys like Pete Dunne, who is 24 years old, but he’s been wrestling for eight years. It’s something to me to see how they have developed so fast and still are so young. If I would have started earlier, I feel like I would have had a little more of an edge, and I would have come up with a better foundation and done things differently. At that age, I didn’t really feel like there were wrestling schools that gave you the ability to do the things that you can in the present day.
What was it about wrestling that drew you to do that as opposed to something else? And what about your training with the previous owner, John Dahmer?
I started wrestling for Cheetah Master in Delaware, which was during the ECWA. I started getting trained in the old school way. When I got to Dahmer and the Combat Zone Wrestling Academy, it was sort of, ‘This is a form of training’ and not, ‘Well, you’re a big guy you do what we tell you to.’
I think it is unparalleled how you grow in this business and how things evolve athletically, there’s no comparison. The physicalness of it is what drew me into it. I had been a wrestling fan since I was about five years old. I tell stories of how my father took me to what was then the Philadelphia Spectrum, which is no longer around, and I would see Hulk Hogan and Greg ‘The Hammer’ Valentine. I saw all those guys, and I was a guy that was watching every single television show that was on. Whether it was Monday Night Raw, or Superstars, or whatever it was that you wanted to call it, all the way back to the NWA stuff. My grandfather in my father’s family, from Tennessee, he used to set up the wrestling ring. There was kind of a background of it in my family and it immediately drew me to it. I was a guy when I was 13 I would sleep outside if I had to in order to get tickets, I would be the first guy in line to get a seat even when I didn’t need to, even if it was an independent show. It’s a crazy thing that my life from an early age came to where it is now.
Is that same passion evident in the talent you see today, to be just as hungry and just as determined?
I think now that there is a better opportunity out there. Guys can progress a lot faster now than ever. If you look at the mindset of society, and society has changed and society has dictated a lot of how we do things and the access to doing different things than ever. I came up in a generation that would want to show what was next to, nearly impossible. If you got that one tape from a fan or that one tape from a show or of one match from the mid-west, then it was great. Now you have streaming, and guys can get a lot of film from a lot of professional wrestling schools all over the place, or at the least have the ability to get to it.
We didn’t have that, and the mindset was different back then. I think that is one of the biggest differences between now and back then. When I started coming up in the wrestling business, and definitely before I got to CZW, I didn’t have a guy like me. I didn’t have someone to stay on me and stop me from making mistakes or doing dumb stuff. It was ‘Hey, we’re going to throw you to the wolves,’ and it wasn’t very organized. It wasn’t like today where you have a pro wrestling school, and not just guiding you. I tell my students I am here to train you and I am here to mentor you. I am here to make sure that you know what not to do. I made the mistakes. I went out and did things at the time. I was okay because I am outspoken or whatever. With the faux pas of professional wrestling, it’s not what you should be doing. I didn’t have that mentor there to guide me and show me the way, whereas today there are a lot of those guys out there that want to do it and can guide you and steer you in that direction.
In talking to CZW alumni Pepper Parks, he shared that there are a lot of good wrestling schools and a lot of bad wrestling schools. Why do you think mentoring is so important today in pro wrestling schools today?
Pepper Parks is really smart. There are a ton of bad wrestling schools, and I am in an area where there are about 15 schools within about an hour. Of those 15, I would probably recommend you to go to about two or three of them, at best. It really just depends on what is best, for you. You need someone to mentor you and guide you. Learning how to take a back body drop or do a wrist lock and how to do a shoulder tackle, anyone can teach you a physical aspect. It’s learning how to write: anyone can show you how to make a letter and teach you to move the pen in this direction or that direction. So, you are like this and they are there to follow you and say, yes, like this. The thing about professional wrestling is it is a business and it is an art form. Teaching you how to navigate through that business and teaching you how to not just write a word, but to write a poem or to write a book. How to tell that story is not just something you can go out and perform and execute. I talk a lot to my students about how a lot of things are executed.
When you are taught things as a professional wrestler it’s different. I can teach anybody how to do a suplex. It really isn’t that hard, it’s a physical act, just like any other physical activity, but how to get you through that action, and how to get you to do those intangibles, and how to navigate through the business, and how to talk to a promoter.
WWE has a recruitment page where they can recruit talent who get paid to do ‘extra’ work. They give you the guidelines. The number of people that don’t follow it blows my mind. You have to have someone out there to point that out. I had a wrestler tell me ‘Well how come you never told me about this?’ I said ‘Well, you are not here for me to mentor. If you were around or listened or paid attention you would see those things.’ It just blows my mind how a lot of people are just out there on their own and think they know everything. I was one of those guys. For many years, I thought I knew and I thought I was good and I thought that I could do things because I was a certain way. When I made the mistakes, I didn’t realize it until later, until I actually had a mentor, someone who smartened me up.
Even now as a promoter, I have had many mentors, and have been under the tutelage of a lot of people who said ‘This is what you can do and this is why.’ Even now I can make mistakes, but I go back to that mentor and say, ‘Hey, I did this, what do you think?’ I can get their opinion on how they would handle something like this. There are a lot of these guys and girls out there now, and they don’t know stuff and don’t have that guidance. I think that’s what is different from people like a Pepper Parks and myself. Pepper has a school too, and he takes his students very seriously. He wants them to succeed because his name and his reputation are on the line with this. The same with me, there is a reason why Adam Cole is Adam Cole. He put in the work. He listened, he had me as a mentor. He basically lived in my house, he never left! (laughs) Then it was time to let him go on his own, and I think everyone has seen what he has done at some point. I think he’s going to be something very special in professional wrestling and everybody knows it. Even now he will say to me ‘What did you think of this?’ Now he has other mentors that he listens to, like Shawn Michaels or Triple H. These are guys that he can bounce things off of and learn from. That’s really hard to find out there nowadays.
There are a lot of places that will say it’s $300 a month or whatever it is, and they just take your money and show you how to perform moves and you move on. It isn’t something where they show you how you are going to be successful in this industry, it isn’t how to be successful and how do I obtain this? You don’t have someone sitting there with you giving advice. There are a lot of those.
Do you think in companies like WWE that the mentoring that is taking place is because of the investment they are putting in the talent and the product to develop?
Correct. 100%. They can see that there are things that they have done, they have tried to help guys with experience or the younger talent, or talent that are trying to learn their system or whatever. I will reference a thing they did during the Mixed Match Challenge. Mandy Rose, who they see a lot of potential for doesn’t have a lot of experience, and they paired her with Goldust to help her and mentor her. Dustin Rhodes has been in this industry forever, he grew up in it. Taking that person and putting them together with her, so she can listen to him and he can guide her and steer her on a path, is already paying off dividends for them.
They look at her and go, ‘Okay in two years she could be the next Charlotte,’ or whatever they see. They want to brand and market her, and she now is learning from veterans like that. It’s very apparent, we can see that on many different scales. Her improvement will come much faster that way. That is due to people like Dustin Rhodes, or any veteran in the organization. Mentoring her and teaching her, being around her and teaching her so she doesn’t make mistakes or do things wrong, trying to make her better professional wrestler.
CZW doesn’t often compete out of the country, but in 2003 they were in Italy. How did the show initially come about, and how did the Italian fans receive the product?
We have done a lot of international shows, and we’re doing Canada in a little more than a month and a half. We just had a big tour in the UK, we have sent guys to work with our partners over there. There are a lot of places where I would like to go, but there are a lot of places we would like to go back to at this point. Obviously, Japan is a place where we would be wildly successful, I think. I think we have already proven that. I want to go back to Germany and do more in the UK and more in Canada. We have a very large following, and we also need to make it work. That is what I am looking at. Obviously, there is a financial aspect to it, we are not a multi-billion-dollar company. We are trying to make it on our own with who we are and with what we can do. I think that we have a pretty good bead on it, it’s just about how are we going to get there.
The tour of Italy was very unique. (laughs) The crowds, no matter where we go they respond. That has never been a worry. It’s more along the lines of ‘How do you continue to be successful as a business? In July we are doing a co-branded show with a company based out of Toronto called Smash. Smash is predominant up there. When CZW comes to town the show is the show. Everyone is familiar with Smash so the attraction is CZW. Smash runs these towns fairly regularly, but we are a draw. How do we make it special and expand the CZW brand? Does it need more exposure to be seen more? Maybe some of their talents can start working with Combat Zone and get a little more exposure out there. It’s just a challenge that we’re working on. I think that there are a lot of places that we want to go, but the focus is getting all our ducks in a row here back at home, and it’s also widening those doors with the partners we currently have. There are a bunch of much bigger things down the line.
You’re not the original owner of CZW, so what drew you to want to purchase the company, and could you have foreseen the popularity that has emerged since its inception? What do you credit that to?
I don’t think I foresaw where CZW is currently. I think my view at that time as a professional wrestler was, I was entering my 30s. I had been wrestling for over a decade already. I had worked for World Wrestling Entertainment. That was an ultimate goal and I kinda messed that up, to be honest with you, I made a lot of mistakes very quickly there. I had a lot of ideas and vision and completely loved professional wrestling more than anything else in my life. Then, I went ‘How am I going to continue to do this stuff when I am in my 50s, as a professional wrestler? When I physically can no longer do this?’
I had a lot of ideas and I had a lot of thoughts on wrestling. I kinda knew that I was going to do something on my own at some point. I don’t think I was thinking I was going to own CZW. I was thinking I was going to go in a different direction. I was already so involved in the backstage stuff that I just wanted to do it. I wanted to take care of finding talent and developing them. I had already taken over being the trainer at the CZW school at that point. I would be the first person there and the last person to leave. I did the work. The opportunity came up to purchase it, it’s already established, already here. This is my home, these are my friends, and this is my family. That’s how I went into it. Shortly thereafter I discovered I made some mistakes, however. I thought I could take it to a new height and a new place and do something to keep it what it is, but do it greater and better. Some of has happened and some of it has gone backward. There are things that I think we did that are positive and some things that are done that are negative. There were some decisions we made at the time that for whatever reason. Now I have the experience and a really great team behind me. The future is bright, it’s just how we are going to get there.
The list of names that you have trained read like a who’s who. What was it about people such as Adam Cole, Shane Strickland, Kimber Lee and Drew Gulak that stood out when you worked with them that they still appear to demonstrate today?
Some of those guys, it isn’t just about what I do. I really need to credit those guys. We have a number of people that come through our school, and I will use Adam Cole for example. Adam Cole did not just have talent. You saw something in him and it was definitely there. However, for him to be the guy that he is, he had to put in the work. He did the stuff that nobody else would do. Shane Strickland is another guy that did that. Shane was a guy who you saw talent in him. However, he went out there and gathered the knowledge and put in the work. Most recently guys that have come into our school that are becoming popular are guys like Lio Rush and the Velveteen Dream. Those guys would come up through MCW twice a week and do the dojo work program. I would have calls from Lio where we would discuss wrestling about once a week. ‘Hey, can I ask you a question and what are your thoughts about this?’
They can just sit there and they can just listen. I think they can use that to platform themselves in a very short period of time. Look at how young those two guys are and how successful they are. Yes, they are going to make mistakes, but they wanted it. There are a lot of people that come into our school, come in from other places that they work with, they have to go out there and do the work on their own. I can only give you advice. I tell people I can send you to the gym, I can tell you what to do, I can tell you this and I can show you how to lift, I can show you the way, but I can’t make you do it. I can’t make people that want to be a professional wrestler and want to physically look a certain way. I can tell them ‘Hey, man you can’t come in eating McDonald’s every day.’ You have to have self-discipline. Those guys went out and did it more than anyone else. They went out and did the extra work on their own and watched the tapes and they got around guys.
I tell people at our shows ‘Hey you want to be Sami Callahan?’ or ‘Hey you want to be Shane Strickland?’ Do you want to be classified as one of those guys? Right now Rich Swann has returned to wrestling. He usually will come to our school a couple of days after the shows. He is another homegrown guy, Rich is very intelligent and very smart, just hang around him and pick his brain and ask him what would you do in this situation. Listen and actually take from it, and apply it to what you are. The guys that do that are the guys that succeed, and you can see that from certain guys. We can see who really wants to succeed, and you can see in comparison those who are just happy to be here. They are like, ‘Okay I’m cool.’ It’s not that they are anything different, but there are guys that you want to take to a different level. That is what it is.
Who is the talent from CZW that appears to be the next to emerge as the ones to watch, and why?
For CZW guys, Dezmond Xavier and Zachary Wentz are definitely the next big guys, guys that you are already seeing if you are an independent wrestling fan, they are everywhere. I think they have been tag champions and they have been all around the world already. Those are guys they have got it, and guys that have studied under me and ones I admire, and I was always on their heels. I know there is a lot of talent in CZW right now that I think are young and hungry. Guys like Brandon Kirk has come out of nowhere. He reminds me a lot of Dean Ambrose. I just have to find ways to motivate them and keep them going.
Now we see guys like Max Castor or the Shook Crew, who are pretty new to CZW, they haven’t wrestled a match, but they have been out there a few times. Max Castor, I see a huge upside to this guy. There are other guys there that will be coming down the pike that we already have plans for.
We see these guys that are already out there like Ace Austin who is a guy that in 1-2 years they will be saying ‘That kid is really good.’ These are the guys that we see as the future. We are currently promoting the next generation of guys, and going that way. If you were to ask me this a couple of years ago I would have said guys like David Starr and JT Dunn and Shane Strickland and Joe Gacy. Now those are the guys that are at the forefront, those are the guys that are going to be main eventing our events. Guys like Maxwell Jacob Friedman, or MJF, is the CZW world champion and he is a 22 or 23-year-old kid. He is everywhere, and he started in our dojo. It was ‘Hey, here is this guy and now he is everywhere doing television for MLW and he is traveling the world.’ He just had a successful tour of the UK and he is only going to get bigger and better, and you are only going to see more of these guys coming up in the next couple of years, really doing something.
On Sunday, June 9th CZW presented the 17th annual Tournament of Death. Who do you think fans should keep an eye on in this tournament, and who may surprise them with their performance in the event? Where can fans purchase tickets to attend the event or will they be able to access a paid streaming service for it?
It will not be live on our on-demand service, but it will be uploaded within 24 hours, it should be available the following day. Tickets will be available at the door, $30 for general admission that is all that is currently left I believe. At this point, there isn’t a bad seat in the house. Tournament of Death is a very unique day. The guys that I think you are going to see come out of this are the new generation, Casanova Valentine who has built a following in New York doing the No Rain Deathmatches, he could surprise you. We have mentioned a guy like Shlak. Guys like ‘the Big Scare’ Dan O’Hare, or you have guys like Conor Claxton and Ricky Shane Page and Drew Parker from the UK.
There are 13 guys in this tournament and it’s wide open, and I think a lot of these guys are the next generation, and hungry. Mance Warner, Dale Patricks, you may have seen them in this genre of professional wrestling before but never on a Tournament of Death scale, but I think this is important to all of them. I think that you are going to see guys that bump it. It’s really anybody’s game at this point. That is one of the things I like, the young hungry next generation. Who is going to be the guy? So, you never know what is going to happen.