Six or seven years ago, after accidentally destroying my lawn mower by (ahem) running it over a thick metal bar, I hired a man named John Miele to care for my grass and trees and such.
Mr. Miele and his crew came every week during the summer, and they did excellent stuff. Initially, I didn’t chat much with the guys. They worked outside, I worked inside—and so it goes. Over time, however, I struck up a chatty friendship with Mr. Miele’s son, John. He was, from afar, a quiet guy who went about his task with silent professionalism. Yet his knowledge base was extraordinary—books, journalism standup comedy, sports, local schools and (most of all) professional wrestling. I could converse with him for hours and never get bored.
Come to find out, John Miele—lawn dude by day—happened to be one of New York State’s top wrestling promoters/managers. Well, one of New York State’s top former wrestling promoters/managers. Having seen the underbelly of an ugly sport/lifestyle, John recently hung up his ring bell. That doesn’t mean, however, that he lacks for stories. Here, in the 108th Quaz, John talks Hulk and Superfly and Vince McMahon, and how a sport that entertains so many too often ruins the lives of its performers.
John Miele—ding-ding—the Quaz is your ring …
JEFF PEARLMAN: OK, John, so it’s not every day you find out your lawn care professional happens to have a long and distinguished history as a wrestling promoter. I have no remote idea how this happened. Like, how did you enter the business of wrestling?
JOHN MIELE: Distinguished? Long! I was writing a pro wrestling newsletter in high school and I was getting access to quite a few famous wrestlers and promoters at the time for print interviews. They loved seeing their names in print and seeing their words written as gospel—especially in a newsletter that had a circulation of over three hundred subscribers paying $2 an issue. My father hated going to the bank with the $2 checks that were feeding my habit. In 1996, I met a local promoter, Paul Sarachelli, and he helped guide me into the promotional aspect of the business. As this was happening the age of the Internet was kicking in and suddenly my circulation started to dwindle as wrestling reporters were giving their information out for free and making revenue from those dreaded pop-up ads and I couldn’t compete nor did I have the resources to go online. My information was often a week or a month late, whereas the internet was breaking news within 15 minutes. The best part about running the newsletter is that so few of my subscribers knew I was 14-years old. At that time I said would never try to make a living printing my words on paper. Little known fact—years later I became a sports writer for five weekly newspapers.
J.P.: A few years ago I attended a show you promoted. It was at a neighborhood high school gym and featured Jimmy Snuka signing autographed photos for $25 a pop. People had fun, but it also struck me as sad. Why do wrestlers like Snuka stick around so long? Did they not make big money in the ‘80s? Is wrestling a drug? Why not just move to Florida and retire?
J.M.: As a promoter I always hated wrestlers taking cash from fans for autographs but I knew it was just another part of the business. I always preferred someone else handling the money as the middleman. It’s seedy and shady and doesn’t look visually good to hand anyone directly money for an autograph.
Wrestlers stick around for as long as they do because there are no benefits when they retire. There is no union, every wrestler cuts his own individual deal. I’ve met wrestlers who made hundreds of thousands of dollars in the 1980s and at the time I bet a huge chunk of the money went up their noses, paid hotel bills, rental cars, child support, lawyer fees—all while paying a mortgage for a house and supporting a family that never saw its father. Wrestling is the worst drug because there will always be a wrestler looking for one more run. The only retirements that I’m aware of in wrestling usually end up with a headstone. So few make it out better than when they started. It’s a tough business.
J.P.: I recently had a conversation with a professional wrestler we both know, and he said the vast majority of professionals in the sport are slime and gross and unworthy of trust. Do you agree? And how would you classify the clichéd prototype of the guy who aspires to become a pro wrestler?
J.M.: Yes, I agree. I’ve met only a handful of wrestlers who I’d invite to my house. As a promoter, the best wrestler is one who works hard, busts his ass and doesn’t know what he’s worth and takes whatever money I offer him or her. Often the best wrestlers were the athletes who couldn’t cut it in other professional sports genres.
J.P.: I know you’re tired of wrestling now, but what was the draw? At some point, clearly, you wanted to make it your life’s work? Why? What about wrestling do you love? And why did you leave the business?
J.M.: Wrestling was a sport to me where it didn’t matter how good you were or how bad you were. The end result was up to the promoter and who the promoter thought he could make more money with. I loved telling stories through the wrestlers. I wanted to do this because I had an eye for talent and if you loved wrestling and lived twenty minutes from Stamford, Connecticut you wanted to work for Vince McMahon and shine his shoes every day before you gave him your life and let him dictate how you would live your life. Unfortunately, I never worked for Vince McMahon. More important, the business took precedence over other periods in my life but it has yet to and never will get in between me and my wife. A friend of mine outside of wrestling compared his fantasy football league similar to what I did in wrestling—the only difference is that real lives were at stake at what I did even on the smallest scale. He also said that wrestlers and promoters are a lot like toys for kids with money. When kids get tired of playing with old toys they look for new ones to play with. The old toys often get thrown out and never played with again. In wrestling, the old wrestlers find new lives with independent promoters like me, but eventually even they, too, get cycled out for fresher names disregarded by WWE. I stopped promoting because crowds started to dwindle and the economy took a huge dive. I also didn’t want to play with the toys anymore. It was time to grow up and leave.
J.P.: There’s been tons and tons of talk about head injuries in the NFL, and the resulting violence. How big of a problem is it in professional wrestling? And is it being addressed?
J.M.: It’s a big problem in this business that I think the wrestlers of the last 10 years are starting to see now and in the future. There’s a reason a man like Nikolai Volkoff wrestled for decades—he wrestled smart and never killed himself in the ring. There’s a smart and calculated reason the WWE just announced last week that it was going to donate more than a million dollars to study CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Wrestlers in the last 15 years were expected to do a lot more to entertain fans than any other previous generation of wrestlers and it took its toll. Chris Benoit killing his wife and son was a calling card to this business.
J.P.: Several years ago you promoted a show in New Rochelle, N.Y. where former light middleweight boxer Larry Barnes (44-3-0) took on a wrestler named Larry Sweeney. If a wrestler-boxer match wasn’t set up, who wins? And, along that line, are wrestlers actors or athletes? Could most wrestlers survive beyond 30 seconds in MMA?
J.M.: That was the best match I ever booked. I can’t just leave it at that. Larry Sweeney was the single greatest talker and entertainer that I ever met—his death was the only time I ever cried about anything in this business. In the real world, whoever fights the dirtiest would win. Wrestlers get trained as athletes but in time have to be great actors. In acting there aren’t actors doing the work of stuntmen, but in wrestling they do both and get paid for the same for doing both. Wrestling doesn’t sell itself any longer—the wrestlers have to be able to show emotion and charisma behind everything they do with what they say. Most wrestlers could not survive beyond 30 seconds. Dan Severn was the one wrestler that survived more than 30 seconds and had the best MMA career for a pro wrestler.
J.P.: This is as broad as can be, but give me your absolute craziest story from your life in wrestling.
J.M.: I’ll forever remember my first night as a wrestling manager in front of 2,800 people at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y. I had my ass kicked by Lou Albano and Killer Kowalski, a midget bit my ass, insulted everyone in the building, I had to pay off a representative from the state athletic commissioner so that I could be at ringside that night, a wrestler really punched out and slapped around another manager thus earning my second match on my first night and I got a free lap dance from one of the female valets who worked the show to cap off the night in the locker room. At the end of the night my father couldn’t have been more disappointed and excited for me at the same time.
J.P.: What separates a great wrestling show from a mediocre or crap wrestling show?
J.M.: Whether or not I had to take money out of my savings to pay the wrestlers.
J.P.: How big of a problem are PEDs in pro wrestling? Have the crackdowns worked? Is it as awful as ever? And, truthfully, does anyone care, as long as the matches go well and folks get paid?
J.M.: Honestly, I grew up with wrestlers looking a lot bigger than your average joe. I see some wrestling shows where the wrestlers looked like they’ve never seen a gym in their whole life. I always hated wrestlers wearing T-shirts in the ring, unless they were trying to sell the T-shirt they were wearing during intermission. Wrestlers should look larger than life but it’s not my place to tell them to abuse drugs. It’s another sad part of the business that some companies look the other way and the WWE is the only one to issue some pretty big fines, suspensions and firings.
J.P.: Vince McMahon—devil or savior? And why?
J.M.: Savior. There was no other promoter who had the vision like he did. Wrestling was going to go national whether or not regional promoters liked it or not. I’m glad he’s the one who ended up winning the war because his contemporaries at the time were just a bunch of carnies who never looked at the big picture.
• If we took all the wrestlers from the last, oh, 30 years and had them actually fight (no scripts), who are the top five?: Meng, Haku, King Haku, King Tonga, Prince Tonga. Oh, and by the way, all those wrestlers are the same person.
• Do wrestlers genuinely care about winning championships, even though the matches are choreographed? If so, why?: Yes, it was a huge bargaining chip for promoters to get talent to work cheaper by throwing a strap on them and giving them steady work. The smart wrestlers are the ones who chase the championship. There’s a lot more money in chasing than finally receiving. To show how distinguished a championship can be, I had the opportunity to give a belt to only one person in my life—my wife on our wedding night.
• Who wins in a fight, right now, between Hulk Hogan and you armed with a baseball bat?: I’ll take on the Hulkster and win with a T-ball bat.
• Five biggest slimeballs the sport has seen: Can only think of two—Sid and Yokozuna. They took advance money and no-showed and I have paperwork to prove it. They screwed a good non-profit organization for more than $3,000.
• You recently got married. Mazel tov. How’d you meet your wife?: Met her on a dating website and we are expecting a boy next month. That’s the most I’ll ever say about my private life. She didn’t marry me for my wrestling promoting talents.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): King Kong Bundy, Sugar Ray Robinson, Cosi, kosher pickles, Scott’s Fertilizer, Run DMC, microwaved popcorn, MacBook Pro, Buddy Bell, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Christmas Eve: King Kong Bundy, Cosi (love their Turkey Bacon Cheddar Melt), Christmas Eve, kosher pickles, Run DMC, microwaved popcorn, Sugar Ray Robinson, Buddy Bell, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Scott’s fertilizer (too much of it will piss off any man with a lawn mower), MacBook Pro (Seriously, I have owned this one that I’m using now and had problems with the internal hard drive and now it says to replace the battery soon).
• How many different ways is Miele misspelled?: Never had any issues with it. Pronunciation is a whole other story.
• 30-word-or-less review of the film, The Wrestler: Basically, the whole world got to see what producers wanted to tell their audience what wrestling had become. I left thinking promoters are really pimps and the wrestlers are whores. The movie made me feel that more people in the world are going to think less of the wrestling business than just my friends and family.
• Do you believe music can save your mortal soul?: No.