After `Rotten' past, he returns to center stage

Brian Knighton: Scarred in and out of the ring, the Fells Point native is thrilled to be on tonight's WWE event.

Pro Wrestling

June 12, 2005|By Kevin Eck | Kevin Eck,SUN STAFF

The scars on Brian Knighton's right arm and forehead are a permanent reminder of the "hard-core" professional wrestling matches he has participated in during the past 17 years.

Beneath the surface, the Fells Point native carries emotional scars that cut deeper than any flesh wounds, the result of a self-destructive lifestyle that has claimed the lives of several peers.

Having spent half his life spilling his blood for little money in bingo halls and high school gymnasiums on the independent wrestling circuit under the name Axl Rotten, Knighton knows all too well about the unforgiving, cutthroat nature of the industry.

But instead of being bitter, Knighton still has a passion for the only job he has ever wanted. And rather than being another casualty of the business, Knighton not only has survived, but he is about to perform on his biggest stage yet - on a pay-per-view event produced by World Wrestling Entertainment, the standard-bearer in pro wrestling.

The show, titled One Night Stand, takes place tonight at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and reunites wrestlers such as Knighton who had worked for the now-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling, an organization that began with a cult following and went on to become a catalyst for the pro wrestling boom of the late 1990s.

The opportunity to perform on a WWE show, even for just one night, came as a shock to Knighton, 34, who had long since abandoned any notion of working for the company that made household names of Hulk Hogan, The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

Perhaps an even greater shock to those familiar with Knighton is the fact that he is still alive.

Known for the extremes he would go to in the ring, including mutilating himself in matches involving barbed wire and broken glass, Knighton also had a reputation for going to extremes away from the ring. He described his ECW days as a nonstop party filled with sex and drugs, but hedonistic fun eventually gave way to drug addiction and depression.

Abusing various prescription drugs, as well as heroin, cocaine and alcohol, Knighton seemed destined to join a growing list of pro wrestlers who died young.

After burning bridges both in wrestling and in his personal life over a four-year span and hitting bottom, Knighton finally confronted his problems. He says he has been clean and sober for the past year.

"I always hated getting in the ring before a show and announcing to the crowd that a wrestler had died and asking for a moment of silence for a 10-bell salute," he said. "In my career, I must have done that 10 times. I'm so glad that no one's going to have to do that for me."

Knighton, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 320 pounds, sports a blond Mohawk and has multiple tattoos and piercings, said he began watching wrestling on television when he was 4 and quickly realized he wanted to be a wrestler when he grew up.

He dropped out of Southern High School in the 11th grade to follow his dream.

Knighton learned the ropes from a couple of independent wrestlers at a boxing gym on North Avenue, and by the time he was 17, he was wrestling regularly at small venues on the East Coast and in the South. He worked during the week at a video store on Fleet and Broadway and wrestled on weekends.

Performing as Axl Rotten, Knighton quickly became the top star on the Maryland independent wrestling scene. One of his opponents and friends in those days was a wrestler named Cactus Jack, who would later become a huge WWE star and best-selling author under his real name of Mick Foley.

"[Knighton] was one of the guys that seemed to have what we refer to as `it,' " recalled Foley, who also will appear on tonight's pay-per-view show. "He had an unusual-looking body ... [and] he had a very odd charisma to go along with a unique wrestling style and an ability at such a young age to talk very well and portray a character."

World Championship Wrestling, owned by Ted Turner and based in Atlanta, took notice of Knighton in 1991 and offered him a job. Used to wrestling in front of a couple hundred people, Knighton suddenly was performing at arenas - including the Baltimore Arena - and on national cable television.

Knighton's stay in WCW, however, lasted just a few months.

"Unfortunately, sometimes you only get one shot at the big time, and all it takes is a couple of influential people to decide you are not what they're looking for," said Foley, who worked for WCW while Knighton was there. "And I think that's what happened to Axl."

While working for WCW, Knighton made a favorable impression on Paul Heyman, who performed there under the name Paul E. Dangerously as a manager and commentator. A few years later, Heyman became the owner and matchmaker for ECW, and he recruited Knighton.

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