Mike Mondo began his wrestling career in a rusted garage inside a Hicksville shopping center at age 18. By the time he was 23, he was working for WWE, had won the world tag team championship, was featured in a memorable WrestleMania bout and was working with the likes of Shawn Michaels, Triple-H and Ric Flair.
Now, at 30, the former Spirit Squad member's wrestling career has come full circle.
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"It's definitely rewarding," said Mondo, of Levittown, who will wrestle Saturday night in the main event of the New York Wrestling Connection's biggest show of the year, Psycho Circus XII. "Now I'm coming back home to Long Island and to NYWC. And I'm just looking forward to giving back my knowledge to all the performers."
Mondo will lead his five-member "Team Elite" against "Team Whipwreck," captained by former ECW champion Mikey Whipwreck, in the annual Psycho Circus match, which features weapons, a steel cage and all championships on the line. Tickets for the event, being held at the NYWC Sportatorium at 435-13 Brook Avenue in Deer Park, are available at nywcwrestling.com.
High-stakes wrestling is nothing new to Mondo, who earned a developmental contract with WWE when he was just 21 years old. In 2005, he and four other young prospects were called up to WWE's main roster and assigned what Mondo calls a "controversial gimmick" for the time -- an all-male cheerleading squad.
While some of his Spirit Squad mates were uneasy about their new characters, "Mikey" said he embraced it right away, taking full advantage of WWE's offer to pay for cheerleading lessons on his days off.
When Mondo and teammates met WWE chairman Vince McMahon for the first time, they went right into their routine in his office -- running circles around his desk, blowing air horns and performing cheers in unison.
"He was like, 'Haha! This is going to work. I like it,'" said Mondo, who boasts being singled out by Shawn Michaels as his "favorite cheerleader," because of his commitment to the gimmick. "I understood that this was a character that was going to get heat. The wrestling was almost secondary."
The gimmick landed Mondo the opportunity of a lifetime -- being featured in a marquee match between McMahon and Michaels at WrestleMania 22 in Chicago in 2006. Mondo and his Spirit Squad teammates ran into the ring to aid the chairman and ambush the "Heartbreak Kid."
After spending a whirlwind weekend signing autographs, eating expensive catered food and rehearsing the match with Michaels and McMahon at a secret location, the magnitude of the experience sunk in during a quiet moment backstage at the Allstate Arena, just before getting his cue to run to the ring.
"I remember just looking around at the Squad members and thinking, 'We made it to the dance. We made it to WrestleMania,'" said Mondo, who got further encouragement from Michaels once inside the ring. "He said to us while we were down there, 'Welcome to WrestleMania boys.'"
The next night in the same arena, Mondo teamed with Kenny Doane to defeat Kane and The Big Show for the WWE tag team championship. Over the next few months, Mondo and teammates would wrestle D-Generation X in a featured bout at SummerSlam and square off against a team of WWE legends, including "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, Sgt. Slaughter and Dusty Rhodes at that year's Survivor Series.
Unfortunately for Mondo, before the year was through, WWE disbanded the Spirit Squad, writing the act off of television in the harshest of fashions. After beating the Spirit Squad in a match, Michaels and his DX partner Triple-H dumped the young wrestlers in a giant crate. On the side was printed: "OVW, Louisville, Kentucky" -- a reference to WWE's minor league developmental system from which Mondo had already graduated.
"We were told it was going to say, "Tijuana,'" recalled Mondo. "When I saw that, I remember thinking, 'Well, that kind of sucks.'"
Mondo said he was assured he'd return to TV soon, in a tag team with fellow Squad member Nicky, who went on to become Dolph Ziggler. But he never returned to WWE's main roster, and was officially cut in 2008.
Mondo returned to OVW, working as one of the company's top trainers until 2012, and also regularly competed in Ring of Honor through last year.
"Unfortunately, WWE is not interested in me, but that doesn't mean I'm going to stop or going to quit. I'm just gong to keep going," said Mondo, who still cheers for his fellow cheerleading buddy, Ziggler, every chance he gets. "The fact that he's had a lot of success with the Intercontinental title, and winning the world title and the Money in the Bank, that's really cool. So if was not going to be me, I'm glad the next guy in line was Dolph."