By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor
Welcome back once again, Bruthas and Sistas. I hope you all enjoyed your holiday and had a safe 4th of July. I’ve been enjoying the World Cup, and the July Grand Sumo Tournament has begun, which is always exciting to watch. We’re headed to the Southeast via Music City for this weeks story. I reached out to a good Brutha of mine, and another man that is as old school to the core as myself.
Damien Wayne Kostyal was born under The Old Dominion sky, just across from the bay from Norfolk in Hampton, Virginia. This put the young Kostyal in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic territory, and he grew up on a steady diet of the N.W.A., and The Nature Boy. From the age of seven, he was going to shows and beginning his lifelong love affair with the squared circle. I had to admit, I sat there with a grin of envy as he told me it:
“I saw wrestling on tv, and I sat there watching; mesmerized by it. Where I was born and raised in Hampton was kind of the heart of Jim Crockett Promotions. Norfolk, Virginia and the Scope was twenty minutes up the road, and then Richmond, Virginia was only an hour up the road from us. I was spoiled on that part of it, and got to see quite a bit of live wrestling. That’s how I fell in love with it.”
As much as he loved wrestling, baseball was his first intentions for a sports career. Life atop the pitcher’s mound was what he dreamed of for his future. He drew attention through his high school years, but a debilitating shoulder injury sidelined that dream. He spent several months nursing the injury, but he would never be able to get that fire back again. He decided it was a good time to try his hand at the wrestling business.
After seeing an ad in the Norfolk paper for a wrestling school ran by Lou Thesz, he called the number to find out the specifics on the situation.
“I called him the year I graduated, in 1989, and he said you had to weigh at least two hundred pounds to be accepted into the school. Of course, back then they only wanted bigger guys. I was barely breaking one hundred eighty-five, and that was eating like a pig and working out all the time. Ain’t no way I’m even getting close to two hundred, so that kinda put the brakes on that.”
In 2001, he stumbled across the webpage for Virginia Championship Wrestling, and made up his mind to try again. By this time it wasn’t his size, but rather his age that he was worried may become an obstacle for him. At thirty years old, and an even lighter one hundred sixty- five pounds, he was thinking he would be suited to be at least a referee. He contacted them and said he wanted to be involved with the business. His knowledge of the independent wrestling circuit was limited after growing up on Crockett and the NWA. At this time the indy scene was still in it’s early stages of anything that could be considered structured or integrated to the point that it is today. Much to his surprise, their shows were much closer than he realized.
“I didn’t even know that the independent wrestling thing existed. They actually were running shows at a bar in the Omni Hotel in the industrial area there in Hammond. I actually worked at an engineering place only three blocks down the road and for three years never even knew they were running show there. They did great though, and ran a pay-per-view show from there once a month, where you came to see their show, and then afterward they showed whatever major PPV that happened to playing that Sunday.”
In January of 2002, he attended one of their weekend shows and participated in an open tryout for a spot in their promotion. Just under thirty people were there, with most of them being much younger than himself. The trainer lined them up and began to show the bumps and start doing the mat drills. He positioned himself later in the line so he could see what the rest of the boys had to offer. When it came time for his turn to bump, he did it the way he was used to and the staff immediately took notice as the trainers, Phil Brown and Preston Quinn kept staring a hole through him. Once he ran the ropes, he recalled their reaction to his technique:
“Now I did backyard growing up, and we actually did what we saw on TV. I was taking snap bumps on the grass at eleven years old. It was around that same time that the Eddie Mansfield interview was on 20/20, where he broke kayfabe and showed some of the inner workings of the moves, which made it easier for us to learn how to do them. So when it came time for me to go, I snap bumped, and they kinda got that “Woah!” look on their faces. I got up there and ran the ropes flawless and had the timing down. They called me off to the side and asked me if I was sure I had never been trained before, because it looked like I had been working in the ring for years. This was the first time I had stepped through real ropes mind you. It felt great, but training brought me down to Earth real quick.”
After surviving his initial camp, he was put together in a tag team and finished his last four months of training as a team with, Tre Brown. The two made their debut in 2002 at the Gloucester County Fair in Virginia. He told me that he thanked God that he was trained this way and learned the tag team psychology before he tried going out in a singles run.
He was slated for a heel turn that night which I was surprised to hear. He turned on his partner and joined manager Devin Sturgis and his Old School Empire faction. You rarely hear of anyone getting to be part of such a big angle in their first match, let alone making a heel turn to boot. It was obvious to the promotion, and anyone that has seen DWK work, that this wasn’t your everyday kid that came down the pike looking to be a wrestler; he had a standout quality, and grasp for the ringwork that are seen in few upstarts in the business. I asked him to go back to that night in his mind and tell me what it was like in that moment:
“It was amazing, Brutha. My Mom was able to be there, which made it so special, cause she was the one that always took me to the matches back when I was seven years old and first fell in love with wrestling.”
He worked with the OSE for a lengthy run and competed in the tag ranks as well, but it was an accident in 2007 that left his partner with a shoulder injury, and DWK looking for the first time at his future in the business as a singles competitor. He took to the roads and learned his craft, soon after and opportunities started to present themselves to him. It was this time on the road that helped to mold him and sharpen his mind on the business.
When things really started to take off for him when he and Rex Sterling traveled to Edison, New Jersey, to a Ring of Honor show to try and get their dvds, and profile packets to Gabe Sapolsky, who was the co-founder of the promotion. ROH was getting off the ground and really starting to garner attention as a destination promotion for the hungry young workers in the industry. When it seemed like they were just never going to make it happen, a little bit of luck fell into their laps. And as anyone knows, a little luck never hurts.
“I saw the way that ROH told stories and really gave their guys the chances to work real angles and not just hit ten minute spot matches. This is where I wanted to be. So we got there really early and searched all over for Gabe so we could get him our stuff. We spent all night looking for him or someone that had an “in”, and could help us. At the end of the night, we finally went up to a guy in the ring crew, and asked him if he could pass them along. He said he’d make sure that he got our stuff to him, but in our heads we thought we had just lost an opportunity. Six months later we got an email from Gabe, and we started working with them. I’d say that that was the big break right there, to the point that I started to have people calling me for shows instead of me having to run down bookings.”
I really love this part of the story, because it just shows that with perseverance comes success, or at least the opportunity to achieve it. Damien could have easily hung his head and left that arena licking his wounds and feeling sorry for himself, and crying the woes of the business. Instead, he stuck to his guns, and beat his feet to create an opportunity, and that folks, is how it’s done when you want it, and aren’t expecting it to be given to you.
He had a strong run with ROH and that led to his being one of the founding members of the America’s Most Liked Wrestling out of Winston-Salem, NC. AML has grown to be a shining star on the independent wrestling scene, and in my opinion, can be counted as one of the true modern day territories. They offer some of the best quality wrestling in North Carolina, and have been a stopping point for some of the biggest stars on the indy wrestling scene. DWK has recently joined forces with C.W. Anderson of ECW fame, to form the Extreme Horsemen, along with “Southern Savior” John Skyler. The trio has put the boots to any and all opponents that have been unlucky enough to find themselves on the opposite side of the ring as them.
They are set to face The Heavenly Bodies on July 29th at the AML-v-Impact event in Greensboro, NC. If you are in that area, I urge you to go out and catch this show, or any of AML’s offerings. As we closed I asked DWK what he saw for his future in the business, and he offered an item that is on my own wrestling bucket list, as well as his feelings about his work thus far:
“My goal is still to get one match in Japan. That’s always gana be the goal, but other than that man, I’m having fun. I enjoy wrestling, and doing it the right way. I like working with the younger guys and trying to get some of those old school ideas across to them. Just having fun man, and the more I can give back, that’s all that really matters to me.”
Much like DWK, I too hope to make it to the Land of the Rising Sun at some point in this crazy extended roadtrip that I’ve found myself on. Along the way I’ve had the privilege of meeting people like Damien, and am proud to count them among my friends. It was through him, and our old school like-mindedness of the business that led to me meeting one of the people I consider to be truly family, in one Bruce Tharpe. The younger generation has gotten so used to the instant gratification that life now offers them, that most don’t have the conviction of character to be willing to fail in the pursuit of success. It makes me smile to see that not all the old ways have been lost, and that there are still guys out there, besides myself, that want to see them preserved.
I wanna thank Damien for his time, and willingness to make himself available to me these past couple days for this. Every time I sit down to talk with someone in the business, I look on it as a learning experience, because I get to see the love of this thing through new eyes, and that has a way of rejuvenating my passion as well. While I will always be a fan of the work in the ring, it’s the stories that keep me coming back for more.
I will see you right back here next week, and always remember…. Bruthas, Sistas, Marks, and Maniacs…..no matter what you do to get your foot in the door, when you’re given the opportunity, break it down!! Peace.