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July 13, 2016

Ring of Honor’s Donovan Dijak on returning to Philly, the health of the industry and more

Wrestling Ring of Honor
071316_Dijak-ROH Ring of Honor/For PhillyVoice

Ring of Honor’s Donovan Dijak.

Ring of Honor returns to Philadelphia this weekend for the first time since March as their Aftershock Tour continues for a night of television tapings that will lead into their Death Before Dishonor pay-per-view in August.

I’ll be heading to the 2300 Arena on Swanson Street Saturday night to catch some of the best wrestlers on the planet in action. You can still buy tickets for the show here, but they are limited. One of those top wrestlers will be Donovan Dijak, who won ROH’s 2015 Top Prospect Tournament.

Dijak, who knows the Philly area quite well, recently spoke to PhillyVoice ahead of Saturday’s show.

PhillyVoice: What’s the thing you’re looking forward to the most as you return to Philly this weekend with Ring of Honor?

Donovan Dijak: It’s interesting because a lot of people talk about Philadelphia and how it’s such a tough crowd. They’re obviously very experienced in the wrestling community with the history of ECW in the area and the fact that we happen to wrestle at the old ECW Arena [now the 2300 Arena]. People talk about how difficult it is [performing in Philly].

I guess the biggest focal point for me when I go back there is the fact that I broke into Ring of Honor in that specific building because that’s where we held the finals of the 2015 Top Prospect Tournament. Of course, they had no idea who I was, really, even though I was a little bit versed in the area. Before that, I wrestled in the Philadelphia area between the Monster Factory and other local independent shows. But that was the first time they saw me in that particular setting. The tournament went so well for me that I ended up winning the tournament and getting the Ring of Honor contract. I think that crowd sort of took a liking to me so it’s never been particularly difficult for me to wrestle in Philadelphia specifically or at the 2300 Arena. This will be my fourth time at that particular venue so I’m obviously looking forward to it.

The town itself is spectacular. I’ve done all sorts of things there. One of the first things I ever did in professional wrestling was in the Philadelphia area for CHIKARA, so it’s really exciting to be able to continue being in that town. I was just in the area last weekend. It’s always great. It’s great that it’s within a reasonable driving distance for me, so I’m able to walk a lot of smaller indies there. And to be able to come back for Ring of Honor is obviously huge and exciting to everybody.

Once the renovations were finally finished at the 2300 Arena, it seems like Ring of Honor has some of the best production for a wrestling promotion we’ve seen in a long time. The arena really seems to bode well now for wrestling events like this. Do you feel like it’s a destination for wrestling again?

I think everybody really ups there game. I saw some of the stuff – not talking the old ECW days, but after they re-opened – the smaller stuff with indies. And, yeah, it definitely needed some renovations. Obviously, it’s an older building, but after all the renovations and everything, I’ve really not ever known it to be in that particular position [with pre-renovations] because the first time I went there was after all the renovations. It’s always a wonderful facility that I’ve been able to experience and witness in my own right. Ring of Honor itself has really upped its production value over the past year. I think anybody who goes to the show this weekend – it’s going to be a television taping, so we’re going to have all the bells and whistles and everything there – so I think people will really experience a full production value for the first time. It’s really something special.

You’re currently being advertised to face Lio Rush during the TV tapings. Do you have anything else on tap?

We’ll be taping between four and five episodes of television, so all of that’s leading up to the week before our pay-per-view in August, Death Before Dishonor XIV, which will be live in Las Vegas. So, the multiple tapings – I know I’m wrestling Lio Rush – and that’s probably going to be one of the earlier if not the first match on the card because he has other commitments as well. He’s in a big tournament in Maryland Championship Wrestling called the Shane Shamrock Memorial Cup which he won last year, so he needs to defend his title. So, he’s all over the place that night. We’re going to be early on the card. I’ve been known in the past to wrestle multiple matches on television tapings. Even our last TV taping, I wrestled a couple of matches. So, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if I had another match, or at least another segment other than the Lio Rush match. That is currently the only one that I’m announced for. It’s obviously a big one. I spoke of myself when I won the 2015 Top Prospect Tournament, well he won the 2016 Top Prospect Tournament. So, we’re going to be facing off for the first time in a singles match and he’s an incredible talent. It should be a wonderful match.

You were a standout athlete in college, playing football and basketball in college, correct?

Yes, I played one year of Division I Football at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and after that I transferred so I had to play two sports at a smaller school, Bridgewater State College at the time which is now Bridgewater State University. I played football and basketball there for four years.

I used to dabble in amateur wrestling when I was younger, but realized I couldn’t compete with the other kids my age. Did you ever think about wrestling while in school? How did you get into professional wrestling?

I was sort of a late bloomer in the world of professional wrestling. I didn’t start watching the product until I was about 11 or 12 years old. I was born in ’87, so that was around ’98-’99 when the Attitude Era was at its peak. I started watching because my older brother was watching. Wrestling was always something that A) I’m not sure we even got it on TV. B) Even if we did, my parents didn’t really encourage it. They kind of discouraged wrestling and violence. Even as a kid, I was consumed with basketball itself. I’ve always been on the taller side of my age bracket so basketball was kind of always my focus. But then when I turned 11-12, I started watching the then-WWF product that eventually became WWE until high school, early-to-mid high school, that’s when I was really a huge fan of pro wrestling. Of course, football and basketball were right in my wheelhouse at that time around 2002-2003. That’s when playing sports really started to take up most of my time and professional wrestling fell by the wayside a little bit. I was involved full-time in sports up until 2010 which is when I graduated. I graduated with a Master’s Degree from Bridgewater State. And once that happened, I picked up a full-time job and I realized once I had a full-time job and didn’t have those other full-time sports, I actually had more free time than I had before. That’s when I started watching professional wrestling again and re-fell in love with it.

The whole time I was watching as a kid, it was always something I thought I would be good at but it was never really a realistic dream for me. It always struck me as something that you would need to sort of drop everything and dedicate your life to, which, for the most part, if kind of true if you want to have any kind of success in it. But, when you’re getting started, it’s something that you can balance between having a full-time job and training for professional wrestling then having your weekends, it takes up all of your time. It certainly is doable if you want to make the sacrifices. Once I realized that, I began training in 2011 with Brian Fury at the New England Pro Wrestling Academy and I haven’t looked back since.

I know a ton of people who took a break from wrestling and came back and re-fell in love with it, whether it is fans or wrestlers themselves. The same thing happened to me where I stopped watching for about two to three years before coming back and falling back in love with it.

I’d say it varies. Some people love it and watch it their whole lives and, sometimes, people like you’re talking about get burnt out on the product and they end up resenting it, so that’s always a negative. But that’s good if you can take a break or extended break and then rediscover your passion. That goes for anything in life. That can be sports, that can be people, that can be anything, really. As they say, different strokes for different folks. It’s however people approach it and now pro wrestling has consumed everything that I do to the point where I’m not sure I can imagine a day without it. So, knock on wood, hopefully I don’t ever have to.

Speaking of breaks, is there a way professional wrestling can have an offseason for athletes?

It would be nice, but it would probably never happen. If there was going to be one, it would probably be in the summer. That seems to be the dog days of professional wrestling. On the independent level, it’s probably the hardest to get bookings around this time. Usually late July, early August, early September, something like that.

A huge portion of our fan base is children and families, and they’re all on their vacations and out of school and all of that. It’s more of a commodity during the school year when they need something to do Friday or Saturday nights, or Sunday during the day. That’s the best time for children and families to make it to the shows. 

If there were going to be an offseason, it would probably only take place on the major, non-independent level, I would suspect. As an independent wrestler, you make your own dates, your own contracts and stuff, so you can’t afford to take any time off. From a higher up company’s standpoint, it might be a little but more feasible because they’re contracted wrestlers. It would be easier to take the summer off or whatever it would have to be. Realistically speaking, I’m not sure it will ever happen. There’s too much money to be made even in the “dog days of summer.” They’re still selling out arenas and venues all over the place. Whenever there’s money to be made in professional wrestling, there’s typically someone there to take advantage of it. So if someone were to design an offseason, I’m sure someone else would take advantage of it during that time.

As a wrestler who has to wrestle every weekend, and it takes its toll on my body, it would be lovely, I think. Even that being said, I don’t think I wrestle enough to warrant something like that. There are guys in WWE that wrestle five to six times a week. That’s the kind of stuff where you start to think about when these guys are going to get some time off. Even if you’re doing relatively simple matches that don’t have any sort of high risk and are just mundane stuff that are relatively easy – people forget that just taking a back bump in a ring is a taxing sort of maneuver – if you’re doing five or six of those every single day for a year straight, that’s going to start to add up on your body. So for that level, I can certainly understand [an offseason]. But if you’re only wrestling two or three times a week, you can sort of grit your teeth and bear it. As long as I don’t have any significant injuries or concussions or anything like that because that’s stuff you obviously take a little more seriously on a micro level rather than a macro level.

With NXT slowly shedding its image as a developmental territory and seemingly becoming a third brand of WWE, is your end game to make it to WWE, or are you happy right now in Ring of Honor?

I think everybody in professional wrestling has individual goals and then the main goal everyone sort of has in the same breath – I would assume everybody’s goal if you’re serious in professional wrestling is to make a living off of professional wrestling – and right now we’re in a fortunate time where you can make a living off professional wrestling in a number of different companies. Honestly, it varies on a case-to-case basis. Obviously, there’s more money and opportunity at different and higher levels, but at the same time, Ring of Honor is doing very well signing a lot of guys to exclusive and non-exclusive contracts. So, it’s hard to say. It varies on a case-to-case basis.

I’m getting married this September and starting a family soon thereafter. That’s all stuff that I’m going to need to take into account, whether or not a different opportunity presents itself. Whenever a contract begins or ends, you just have to take it on a case-by-case basis. I certainly would never count out the opportunity to work for a different company if that’s what presents itself as best for myself and my future family in my particular scenario.

Would you agree that with the widespread availability of professional wrestling nowadays that the industry is on the cusp of something pretty big?

Wrestling right now is definitely on its way up. It’s hard to compare it to the late ‘90s with WCW, WWE and ECW because everything was kind of consolidated into those three companies and there was so much money flying around so it’s hard to look at it now and say it’s comparable. But in the same way it is because if you look at the way everything is spread out now and the availability of everything on the internet, it’s popular but in a different way. It’s not 7-point whatever ratings on Monday Night Raw anymore, but if you count how many people around the world who are watching professional wrestling now, it’s probably comparable in numbers. It’s just all not consolidated in one area. So, when something like that happens, that makes everyone step their game up and right now everyone seems to be in competition with one another which makes the best product for fans. Right now is really a special time in pro wrestling where everything is on the rise and I think people are going to look back in 10-15 years and remember it as a very fond time in the world of professional wrestling.

Follow Donovan Dijak on Twitter: @donovandijak

Follow Nick on Twitter: @nickpiccone

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