By Jim Phillips, Senior Editor – Classic Wrestling
Hello again, and welcome back Bruthas and Sistas to a special edition of Breaking In. It’s been a bit since I’ve done one and I wanted to mix things up a little. I try to keep an eye on the International independent scene as well as here in the States, and in doing so talent pops up on my radar from time to time. Recently, I got one Helluva ping coming out of China. Harbin to be exact, and the man I’m talking about is taking Asia by storm, leaving smoldering ash, and misted opponents in his wake throughout the Middle Kingdom Wrestling promotion. He is the Zombie Dragon, but his story doesn’t begin here. For that we need to go back to the Summer of 1989, and the city of Hot-Lanta.
Like most kids of that generation, cable television and video games were one of the formative influences that gave them a window to the bigger world around them. This was the case for a young Zombie. It was the high-flying Luchadores and cruiserweights of World Championship Wrestling on the Superstation that fueled the fire and sparked the flames of his future. I asked him about his early influences, and you could see where he gathered the raw materials to build his persona:
“I was drawn to guys like Psychosis, and Raven, and the Great Muta. The characters and masks grabbed me. I never watched a lot of WWE, but when I did, it was Tajiri that attracted my attention. The mist and the way he wrestled. I knew that this was what I wanted to do when I grew up.”
For a youngster, growing up at that time in wrestling’s fourth great ascension during the Monday Night Wars ratings battle, the level of competition was fierce and daredevil like feats that the stars were starting to perform left him in awe. Getting to see them work live and seeing feeling the intensity of the action drew him in even further. One of his best friend’s Father was a wrestler in the independent scene around Atlanta, which besides being the home-base for WCW, also hosted several indie promotions at that time, and still today. The little Dragon, got to go and see for himself what it was all about, when he would accompany them to the matches.
As someone that grew up in the territorial days of weekly shows, and traveling superstars, I’m of the belief that the independent level of wrestling show is the perfect place to introduce kids to the product. They get a closer relationship with the show, and wrestlers alike. While the production levels may not be able to touch the big boys, it is there that the heart of the business can be found beating strongest. For so many that choose the path of professional wrestler, or sports entertainer(ugh), the smaller level show is most often where the seeds of their future are sewn.
It was in High School that Zombie decided that it was time to start making the dream of becoming a pro wrestler into a reality. He began to search for wrestling schools during his computer class in tenth grade, when he stumbled over WWA-4 promotion located there in Atlanta. He followed them for the next year and a half, and in that time, he studied video. He also showed two of the qualities in a wrestler, that being sacrifice and passion for the business. On the night of his graduation from High School, while his friends were walking the stage to get their diplomas, he was at the WWA-4 signing his paperwork to become a wrestler.
The WWA-4 at that time was one of the top training schools in the country and produced several stars who were picked by both the WCW, and WWE, as well as ECW. The school had a full gym, and a unique five ring set-up, which for that time, was unprecedented to have that much to offer a professional wrestling student in one location. Things were taught the old school way, at their facility also, with The Zombie Dragon recalling in our conversation.
“They gave us some pretty good training man. They trained us on the outside of the ring first and work your way into even getting into the ring. We went through conditioning. It wasn’t just like we got into the ring and started bumping. It made us appreciate the work and time it took to make it into that ring. They taught us so much. They taught me integrity for my sport.”
With guys like WCW/WWE alum Mr. Hughes leading the training, the students that made their way through the high end facility got their money’s worth if, as in any school, they chose to apply themselves and accept what their trainers were trying to get across to them. Many of the students went on to careers in the business, both in and out of the ring, with Apollo Crews, AR Fox, and Jonathan Gresham just to throw a few names out there. He stuck with the training and like so many times in the business, being in the right place at the right time got him work.
Another promoter happened to be in the training center that day to talk about finding talent for an upcoming show he was putting on, when he walked past the ring when The Dragon, then wrestling as the Curry Kid, landed a clean drop kick. It was lucky for him because, admittedly, that was one of the few moves at that time that he was proficient at. The promoter approached him later and offered him a match in the show he had coming up. This was the first of many doors to open for the then, Curry Kid, and he made the most of it.
He shared what it was like being in front of the crowd that first time with me.
“I remember going out there for the first time, it was butterflies. Even though I was working under a mask, which is the only real gear that I could afford at that time, it was like stage fright to be in front of the crowd. I was wrestling a guy working under the Hans Schmidt gimmick and once we got in there it all started to feel more comfortable to me. We finished, I won the match, and from there, things just started to jump off for me.”
He worked across the South and Southeast as the Curry Kid, and for the next eight to ten years he learned his craft and earned his stripes in the independents. He was also attending seminars and working as a referee to get that extra perspective on the business that can be lost by some students. It was a bit of introspection, as well as looking for new character development that led him to a collection of gimmick ideas that he had stashed away in the depths of a journal to break out of the “creativity shell” as he put it to me. Fate lifted a finger, as it happened, he was watching a match between the Ultimo Dragon and Great Muta, and the idea popped in his head.
From the re-tooling and tweaking of the images he was drawing, to the friends he had that made his mask, gear, and logo designs, the Zombie Dragon began to emerge out of the epiphany he had that day in front of the television. His Kid Curry character had been pursued by a heel faction for some time and they finally caught up to him, beat him, unmasked him, and summarily “killed” him, which allowed the birth of the heel Zombie character out of that demise. It wasn’t long before it gained popularity and he used the cinematic nature of the gimmick to expand the boundaries of what most wrestling characters are able to do.
Another earmark for me that a wrestler is working hard to make it in the business, is their willingness to travel abroad to work. Now, I’m not talking about leaving their county or state, I’m talking about those who leave the country to seek their fame and learn new facets of their craft that they may not be exposed to here in North America. There are a few who take that to another level and stay for extended periods of time overseas in various markets. It is these road soldiers that I have the utmost respect for as they leave behind not only family and friends, but the regular comforts of the only type of life they know, to be submersed in the culture of another country. I long for such travels in my future and applaud those who take that step. Kid Curry took that step and looked to spread his wings to Asia.
After getting a call from one of the guys he trained, who went on to work as a teacher in China, and the circle came back around unbroken to open the door for the Zombie Dragon to go to China. His friend had also been wrestling for the MKW promotion there in China and it had come to his attention from the owner that they were looking for a full-time trainer to help bolster the student ranks, as well as the eventual roster. He told the promoter that he knew a guy that would be perfect for the job, and not long after the Dragon got the call and was headed overseas. Along the way he thought about the Kid Curry, and how that character had affected him.
“I’m grateful for that time I spent as Curry. It was a decade of learning, putting people over, and being humble. It was a decade of seminars and struggling. I think these things helped me mature as an athlete, not only physically in the ring, but mentally and professionally as a person as well. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know that I would’ve been able to handle the success that has come my way so far.”
With the addition of some special effects make-up to make the zombie part look more ghoulish, to taking on the mannerisms of Asian greats like Muta and Tajiri, as well as adding the mist to his repertoire, the Zombie Dragon was coming together better than he had hoped for. After arriving in China, and working a show or two, he was approached by Ho Ho Lun, who had worked with the WWE and NXT, to come and work for his promotion in Hong Kong. Like any good road soldier, he jumped at the chance to work in yet another country.
Once he got there he went to check in with Lun to see what he had in mind for the show and it was then that he found out he was going to be working with one of his boyhood idols, the Japanese Buzzsaw himself, Tajiri. Getting the chance to make that happen is a bucket lister for any wrestler, and Zombie tried to explain the elation he felt, and it was so clear in his voice when he was telling me.
“He told me I was going to be doing something with Tajiri and it popped the hell out of me. I was like…yeah, this is going to be insane. He was in a match the first night, and I went into the ring afterwards, and we were staring at each other, we started to move alike, almost like mirror images. He was one of the guys I patterned my movements after, and it looked so cool, and that part just happened. I blew the mist up into the air in the center of the ring and we were off and running. The next night we tagged together, and it was so great! It was a moment that I will never forget. I would’ve never thought that it would happen for this little kid from Atlanta.”
With great risks, often come great rewards, Bruthas and Sistas. Just as he, himself put it…a little kid from Atlanta. But were we not all little kids from some town on the outskirts of Anywhere, America when we got the dream to uproot ourselves and take those risks? Whether it be there or in the hot summer night of the clamoring big city, it was still the same dream for us all, and those with the willingness to let come what may, and roll the dice, left there to seek their fame and fortune. Not everyone returns home triumphant, but all who walk that path deserve a nod of respect.
There is no doubt that when the Zombie Dragon decides to return home, he can claim a victory in his travels abroad. Whether it be Hong Kong, Japan, China, India, or the number of countries he has landed in, they have all learned his name and will remember the fire spitting, mist spraying, un-dead demon long after he has left.
I want to thank the Zombie Dragon for taking the time to tell me this story, that has so many chapters left to be written in it, and you, for spending this time with me once again. Until next time, 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!!