Impact Wrestlings Elijah Burke, who performs as “The Pope” D‘Angelo Dinero, is one-half of the company’s commentary team. He recently took some time out of his busy schedule to participate in an interview with me. Burke’s career has seen him compete with both WWE and TNA for a number of years. His growth as a performer both in the ring and on the microphone is remarkable. In the interview, Burke shared his thoughts about the chemistry between himself and Josh Matthews, and how a particular match recently had both of them laughing hysterically. He also opens up about his history with the business and who was integral in his wrestling development.
Burke also discussed his philanthropic projects, and how crucial giving back is to him. He discusses his early training and development in OVW, how he turned down an initial offer to have a role in a faction, and how his early call-up put him front and center. TNA Impact Wrestling fans will be pleased with how open and forthcoming Pope is about his evolution as a wrestler and how he initially prepared to become a wrestler. As a graduate with a degree in criminal justice, Burke is quick to share how crucial it is for today’s talent to prepare for what may happen if wrestling doesn’t work out.
Discuss your transition from boxing to wrestling. How did that come about?
“The transition from an amateur boxing background to wrestling was not that difficult, as far as showmanship and the entertainment aspect of it. It wasn’t hard at all because my main reasoning for boxing was just to entertain. Of course, I trained and did as much as I could to be a good boxer so I could hold my own in the ring. I was more of a tough guy, more of a brawler, a slugger.
I grew up fighting, so the boxing part wasn’t hard, but my main concern was the fulfillment of that burning desire in me to entertain the masses. However, the only part that was indeed a challenge was restricting myself from throwing actual punches. When I would throw my punches or what not, I would have a hard time pulling it back a bit. So that was the main thing that I actually had to work on, which I did countless times by punching a dummy.
I actually learned to throw my first actual wrestling punch from Jim Cornette. One of the ways that I learned to throw fake punches in the wrestling ring, without having a legit force that would injure my opponent in the ring, was using a lightbulb that would hang in the distance. I would do my best to hit that lightbulb without damaging it, breaking it or moving it. So if I could throw a good enough punch to a lightbulb without causing it to shatter, I think that’s pretty good. I think that as time went on, I felt more comfortable with it and I was able to incorporate my actual boxing strikes in the ring and be safe with it.”
During your training with OVW, you developed your character both in the ring and on the mic. Who would you attribute as being supportive during your early development?
“Jim Cornette and Danny Davis. Danny Davis is the grandfather, the wizard, of OVW. Those two were very instrumental in helping me develop my character. Jim Cornette said, “just be you, just do what you do, the people love you.” That was basically what it was.
On the microphone? On the mic? The gift to gab, if you will, that came along with the whole package with Elijah. That’s something that I’ve always done. That’s something that I hadn’t needed to really develop. If there is someone that I would attribute my ability to gab to, I would say, my Pastor, Willie May Goodness, from down home in southern Jacksonville, Florida. Where I grew up, in church, is where all that came from, the gift of gab and being able to talk on the mic and be comfortable with it.
If there was anyone that showed me how to convey emotion and allow it to manifest it into something more for the viewing audience, then of course that goes to “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, who I had the privilege and the honor to work with. He was my childhood idol during my time in OVW, prior to my time in ECW. Definitely, it was Dusty who was supportive.
Dusty saw me and I went and introduced myself and he stopped me. He said, “I already know about you, daddy. You and I are going to have some fun.” I would do my promos and it would be awesome. They would have scripts, but he believed in me so much that he would take the script or anything they wanted me to say and he would turn it down. He would say, “just do what you’re going to do, daddy. You let me deal with Stephanie and Vince. You just say what you’re going to say.” That was just so awesome because he believed in me so much. He knew that I could take what they wanted me to do and put it in my own words and hit a home run with it. That’s what we would do all the time.”
The early part of your time in the WWE was alongside Sylvester Terkay. Describe the experience and what you may or may not have liked about it.
“It’s Tur-KEI, daddy! (laughs) Well, that was very interesting for me, my call-up. As you know, there was a call-up for The Spirit Squad, and a lot of people were always struck by why I didn’t get that call-up. I won’t go into details on that right now, but I turned it down. They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get you back up when he has something for you.” Lo and behold, they brought me up with Sylvester, and instead of coming up as a wrestler, I’m coming up as a mouthpiece. I felt that it was going to be a favorable role as well, much like in the Spirit Squad. However, they brought me up to be in charge of this beast, who was legit, much like myself; he was an MMA guy. He had several MMA matches and he was a monster. But he was a gentle monster, and to a fault, he was a naïve monster as well, which might be unfair to say, but he definitely was.
So the experience for me at that time as a rookie was being the advocate for him in our tag team that we had, smoothing over things that may have gone rough, or may not have been perceived well by the boys. He was generally well liked, and I liked working with him. They were grooming Terkay for The Undertaker, and so I was “Hey, let‘s do whatever we have to do to make this happen.” If you’re going to work a program with Undertaker, they will try to take you to Mania. That’s what they had with Taker. So, they were grooming him for Taker, but he had so many different folks in his ear talking about how to get him over, and he would just compete.
A lot of his stuff, if it looked like it hurt, it actually hurt. That hurt him in that aspect. So, I was put in his place, having my first match in place of him against Rey Mysterio on Smackdown, and the rest is history. It was “Holy crap, this kid can go,” so they went with me instead. Then, I was on my way.
The New Breed was a faction that brought new and younger talent to the forefront. How did that experience help you grow and develop?
“That was the best confidence building experience that a guy in my position at that time could have. One, because Vince himself was behind the Elijah Burke movement at the time. I had no idea that any of that was about to transpire with me and the ECW originals, and being called the new face of extreme, or however, it was put at the time. It did so much for me because I have the boss deeming me the new face of ECW. So it was “Put up right now or shut up,” because everything I had worked for by that point, or dreamed of doing or being, led to this. Here is my opportunity to go out there every night and do the darn thing. I was going in there against former world champions, like my first time against the only guy to hold a WWE and ECW title at the same time, Rob Van Dam, who has done it all and wrestled all over. Either I’m going to soar like an eagle in these match-ups, or I am going to crash and burn. So that’s essentially where I was.
There were nights where I went out there and I had no idea that I’d be wrestling a Tommy Dreamer, who is #3 on my list as far as most influential people who affected me. Getting in there with people like Sabu. To be at such a young age, and new to the business, I was actually in a position to lead.
Now, you have to remember that at the time I was a heel, and heels generally lead matches. Even though I was young, these guys asked me, “What do you want to do and what are you thinking?” Things like that. Wrestling with a Sandman or Balls Mahoney wasn’t difficult at all because they were down with whatever I wanted to do. It was just really a great experience to be in there with everybody that I was in there with at that time.”
Prior to leaving the WWE, the Black Pope character debuted. How does it parallel D’Angelo Dinero? How much “creative” have you had with the character?
“The Black Pope character was something that never got going in the WWE. It was something I came up with and did for the first time in the Staples Centre, in Los Angeles in a dark match against Funaki. I show up that day and I’m told, “Do your Black Pope thing.”
No one warned me, and I’m just there saying “But I don’t have any clothes for the character!” (laughs) That was something that we did and it never got off the ground. I was sitting on the sidelines and had nothing to do, and no one knew what was going on.
We had a shuffle of the writers at that time, back with ECW. ECW was transitioning its roster to Raw and everything was being switched up so much that I just got lost in the shuffle. So, I thought I’d come up with a new character to keep myself new and fresh.
But the whole “Pope” thing was ignored by the WWE. You normally have to go with the flow, even if an idea is yours, but you believe in it and you see where you want to go with it. You know where it can go if creative gets hold of it and they say they like the idea. But they want to put their own spin on it, their own touches, and you become jaded or what not.
D’Angelo Dinero came about through Vince Russo. BRO! You have to give Russo his credit. BRO! They were going to bring me in as Elijah Burke and here we go again. “BRO! You have to do that, bro. You have to be the Pope, bro its money. I’ve got a name for it too, bro, D’Angelo Dinero. Dinero means money.” D’AngeloDinero was Russo’s pick for the name and I agreed to it. The Pope was my thing. It is and was everything to this day because I was allowed to fulfill the vision that I had with my character.
During your initial run with TNA, you engaged in a number of solid feuds. Which were you most proud of, and which would you have liked to have seen more come from?
“I was most proud of my feud with AJ Styles. Much like my experience in WWE, out of the blue Terkay was removed and I’m put in there with Mysterio. I had no idea I was going to be in there with Mysterio, and then I’m in there with Tatanka, and I’m in there wrestling all these legendary guys who I grew up watching.
We’re watching TNA while we are with WWE, and while touring, that’s what we do. We love the business, so we watch them. So, you watch an AJ Styles “The Phenomenal One,” he’s touted as being Phenomenal, he IS Phenomenal. He’s feuded with the “who’s who” in TNA. Now all of a sudden it’s Pope’s turn. A guy that always knew he could hang with the best, be with the best, and now quite frankly I was with one of the best pure high-flying wrestlers there is. He can just go. So, I was most proud to be able to get in there and tour around the country and kill it with AJ Styles. I’m driven as well, so is the character that I am and being in there with “The Phenomenal One” AJ Styles, it was just magic and I was humbled by that. Along with this feud, to be in there with one of my favorite wrestlers of all time, Ric Flair, it was just great.
The feud that I wish would have played out a little bit better was with Samoa Joe. We got thrown together on a whim, for no reason. Not much build up. Every time we had a match-up, it was almost as if we were an afterthought. Even though we did segments that got us the highest rating on iMPACT, for instance, when they had the roasted pig on a spit and Joe comes to the ring. We had a really hot roasted pig on the table with an apple in its mouth. Seriously, I don’t know who comes up with this stuff, but it was straight out of the oven. Who does that? There are people at home who don’t even believe that it was hot, but it burned me tremendously when Samoa Joe came out and muscle busted me through that table and that pig fell on me. It was burning my skin, literally. Our feud went all the way to Lockdown and we had a great match. I just wish our stuff could have played out and had a little more thought and detail into it. I definitely enjoyed those feuds the most.
And Suicide! I don’t know how Pope could have forgotten him. Suicide, as well as AJ, was my favorite, Joe is the one that I thought could have had more detail and attention given to it. I can say wrestling against Suicide was one of the most fun experiences I have had as a competitor. It was unbelievable, we had so much fun. We were willing to do everything and anything to make our feud great. That series of matches against Suicide is really what turned the tide. We literally had the crowd turn Pope from being the bad guy, though they really hadn’t booed me for the most part. I have to get credit to my series of matches against Suicide, it was just too entertaining for people to hate me. They wanted to love the Pope, and thus, Pope became the babyface, and that’s what led into AJ Styles.”
Discuss your return to OVW and the differences you found with the program. Did you find you were called upon more during this time?
“It wasn’t necessarily a return to OVW, it was more so a thank you to OVW. It was more a showing up as needed, and WWE was no longer there. TNA had pulled out as well, I believe. This was more something like “I want to come in and do anything Danny Davis needs or wants.” If I’m up that way, then he has me, like on Nov 21st, 2015, he has something big going on and I’ll be there. He contacted me and asked me if I could be there and I will do anything for Danny Davis.
As we talked about earlier, regarding who played the most prominent role in crafting Elijah Burke, I said it was The Wizard and Jim Cornette. So any time that I can help Danny Davis or OVW and lend my name or experience and help out, I am there. I’m in more of a veteran role now, and I try to do what the Rob Conway did for me and what the Matt Morgan did for me, and that is to just give advice, give direction and just be available to all those who want it. Sadly enough, there isn’t enough that want it, but for those who do, I try to give them that veteran advice and the same thing that was given to me.”
Since returning to TNA you’ve worked alongside former WWE announcer Josh Matthews. Discuss the chemistry both on screen and off between yourselves.
“Josh is a middle-aged grumpy old man (laughs). He is going to kill me for that, but that’s just what we do. You asked about our relationship, and it’s all good and on the up and up, and I want you to be sure to report that. Middle-aged, grumpy old man, that’s Josh Matthews (laughs).
What a lot of people don’t know – and I’m going to discuss the chemistry in a minute – what a lot of people don’t know about Josh Matthews is that in his role he is a man that wears many hats. I don’t think he gets the credit from the IWC that he deserves. When I say IWC, I’m just talking about Twitter because that’s all I see and know of. I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves because I see people make negative comments about him on Twitter.
Josh does so much. Honestly, he is a great individual. We have built great chemistry just from liking each other. He is the yin to my yang. We just compliment each other so well. He’s just a straight shooter. He’s the knowledgeable guy and the historian and he steers the ship. All Pope has to do is say, “Hey, be Pope.” It just works well. I don’t step on his toes as far as what he does and he doesn’t step on mine. We both know our roles, we do it and we have fun doing it. So recently, there was a match in our World title series between Grado and Rockstar Spud. Josh calls him Grade-O, but I don’t know why. When I tell you I have watched this match so many times I have lost count, it is the absolute truth. Instead of trying to sit there and call this a huge match of gigantic proportion, and do an injustice to what they are doing because it was an entertaining match with a lot of comedic spots in it, you call it as it is. You call it as the fans at home are viewing it. So when I’m calling the matches alongside Josh, I’m just a fan. If I’m sitting at home watching Grado against Rockstar Spud, I would be dying laughing.
So what happened when Pope was calling the match, Pope was dying laughing. It was all I could do. He (Josh) just started having fun with it too. It was that type of match-up, it really was. I love working with Josh, he’s a confident individual and we love working with one another. Some people don’t like working with the person next to them or loathe who they are with; me and Josh, we’re brothers in the bond.”
What have you found to be the biggest transition from being in the ring to commentary?
“Pope adds color, literally and figuratively (laughs). It’s all good, Marc (laughs). The hardest part is what you said, to just sit back and add color to the commentary. When you’re watching your brothers in the ring and you had wanted to be in there and you can’t, even though you know you are ready to go at any time, it’s just the hardest part. I believe in being a team player; I know my role, I know what I signed up for. If I never wanted to do it, then I never would have come back in that position. I thought it was a great opportunity to expand in my wrestling career to do new things and understand different aspects of the business. So, I love adding color and adding justice to the guys that are my brothers in the ring. There are so many times over the years where I’ve listened to commentary here and there, and sometimes the person on commentary was not doing justice to what was transpiring in the ring.
I love being there and drawing attention to specific details by pointing out different things. I can tie in my own personal experiences with the color commentary that I am giving and do the boys justice. I don’t mind doing that, it’s my role. Hell, somebody’s got to do it, why not Pope? I’m so blessed and so fortunate that over my twelve-year-plus career I’ve never really been restricted when it came to being on the mic. All the way back to Vince, I never had to go out there and go over verbiage with Vince McMahon and go over how to say something. My bosses have always had confidence in what I do and how I deliver it. Even to this day, it’s freedom, it’s being Pope. I am being Pope from start to finish. I have the liberty to say and do what needs to be said, or how I see it. It’s all to my discretion because I don’t have someone in my ear that is saying “say this” or “say that.”
Now, of course, you will have reminders of something that you may have missed, or are not aware of. That’s when you will get the buzz in the ear, but that’s about it. The liberty and the artistic freedom is just great. It’s much like when Pope discusses Bobby Lashley. He calls what Lashley does a vertical suplex. There are a lot of people that may not understand the throwback, what that means and why Pope says it so much when it comes to Lashley. That’s because I grew up on Gordon Solie and World Championship Wrestling. Gordon Solie was the premier announcer at that time for all of TBS. When Gordon Solie called that a suplex, at the time I probably didn’t know what it meant per se, but I knew what it was because he would always say it when someone would hit a suplex. So, I like to pay homage to Gordon Solie. A lot of fans today don’t have a clue who he was because they don’t know the history of wrestling. My boySolie, they don’t know what he contributed so therefore they wouldn’t understand the homage that Pope pays every time he’s on the microphone doing commentary, and every time Bobby Lashley hits that standing vertical standing suplex. That’s why I do that.”
It was reported that you’ve earned a degree in criminal justice. How do you feel that’s set you up for life after wrestling?
“I did that during my previous stint with TNA, but I started back on it while I was with the WWE. It was one of the things where I was on the sidelines with the WWE, and you have Mickie James sitting up in the stands, WWE Women’s Champion, doing work on her laptop. I ask “What are you doing girl?” She responds, “I’m in school trying to finish my degree.” Mickie had achieved a great deal up to that point, she didn’t need to have to get a degree, and it made me look at myself and think, “Hey, Elijah, you never finished your degree!” I definitely credit her and give her props because she inspired me and made me think, what the heck am I doing?
I went to the police academy, was trained, graduated and got dual certified, but couldn’t become an officer because I hadn’t finished my degree since they raised the limitations to a four-year degree. In some places, you don’t have to have a degree to be a cop, but in Jacksonville, you had to have a degree. I had all these credits sitting at college, so let me do something here while I’m on the sidelines and not being used, and even when I was being used, and even when I was traveling around the world with TNA. I remember being out in Paris and everyone else was out, Pope’s in his hotel room doing his work. Pope is on the train ride doing his work because I wanted to go back and finish what I started. So that’s what I did. Thanks to the big man upstairs that’s what I did.
I don’t look to be done with wrestling for at least another 8-10 years, but it’s give and take. It is just so great to have your papers. I told this to Vince Russo. It is great to have your papers on your wall so that you know that if something happens and you can’t continue forward in the career that you’re in, you can always go back. I can always go back and I can always go somewhere else if I choose too. A lot of the guys in OVW, I’ve told them this may be their only WrestleMania moment, so you have to go out there and enjoy it and have fun with it. But be sure to get your degree! Always have a fallback plan. Thanks again to the big guy upstairs, I have made arrangements, I have made plans.”
What does the balance of 2015 and beyond have in store for Elijah Burke?
“2015 and beyond, well daddy we’ll discuss Elijah Burke later because it’s all about Pope right now (laughs). When it comes to the Pope, man, we are smooth sailing right now. We have some big things planned with Impact Wrestling. Dixie Carter, John Gaborik, they are all working on some very big things. I am happy to be a part of it, and I see myself going through 2015 into 2016 to something bigger, something greater. I think TNA will sail in that same direction because I’m aboard that ship. I believe right now Pope, Elijah Burke, is in the hot seat for commentary for quite some time. However, for the fans that always question when I am going to get back into the ring. Pope isn’t retired and hasn’t been. I’ll be back, much like Bound for Glory, I’ll be making a lot more appearances, more than likely inside a TNA ring.
Right now I have some special things coming up, speaking of Elijah Burke. We have a charity, The Love-Alive Charity has been solidified as an organization in the state of Florida. A big event is coming up, the first one of the new year, Saturday, Jan 9th, I believe. WWE comes together to feed, cloth, and give hygienic products to the needy, to the homeless, to those families, and we shelter them. We give them Burger King straight out of a Burger King restaurant. It isn’t out of a truck and feeding them cold sandwiches and cold salads. I’m talking about cheeseburgers, rib sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, and we give the desserts, and we give them time and acknowledge that some folks have it harder than others, not by their own fault.
My charity is still growing and looking for help from the community and social media. Anyone who wants to donate, just a dollar donation will help. I remember telling someone I have 5,000 friends on Facebook. If I could just get $1 from all those people, could you imagine the difference? It’s very hard being out of character to seek out and solicit the help of others. Sometimes I think people think, “Oh, he’s Pope, he has money,” but this is just a really good cause and a way to have people give, when they take that dollar they are going to throw away, and they donate it. Just $1 will help us feed, cloth and give hygienic products. There is just so much we can do to help make this world a better place. I often tell people to be the change that they want to see in this world. The Love-Alive Charity is something they can look more into by going to theelijahexpress.com to donate and learn more about the charity.
I am community driven, whether that is through social media or with fans. I will be doing something special for Danny Davis and Ohio Valley Wrestling on November 21st. It is going to be the Danny Davis Tag Team Cup, and that’s going to be at the Louisville Sluggers Baseball Park. For anyone who wants to book “The Pope” Elijah Burke, email firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow me on Twitter @DaBlackPope or on Facebook.com/ElijahBurke. We are hard at work, both myself and my partner Josh Matthews, coming up with new and innovative ideas, such as following the first Impact after Bound for Glory, which is a tremendous and awesome show. We have big things coming, things we can’t really go into detail about, but I can assure you that 2016 has big things coming for fans of Pope and fans of Impact Wrestling.”