Curt Hawkins puts his students through their paces at Create A Pro Wrestling Academy in Hicksville as the Alice in Chains classic “Man in the Box” plays in the background on a recent Thursday night.
Hard-core wrestling fans know the song as former Extreme Championship Wrestling icon Tommy Dreamer’s entrance anthem. But the song’s title might describe the predicament of any aspiring grappler who has to master the basics and find his own identity.
On this night, Hawkins stands outside the ropes on the ring apron as more than a dozen of his students practice the fine art of, well, standing up. From prone positions on the mat, they turn and use their elbows and knees simultaneously to gain momentum and spring to their feet, making it clear for performance sake that whatever felled them hasn’t broken their spirit.
Ten feet to the right of where Hawkins stands, a sort of resume hangs on the white cinder-block wall — a painting of Hawkins and partner Zack Ryder celebrating their 2008 WWE Tag Team Championship win during The Great American Bash pay-per-view event at Nassau Coliseum.
More than a decade later, Glen Cove native Hawkins has found his place again — thanks to a historic losing skid that proves getting knocked down hasn’t broken his spirit, either.
In the week before Sunday’s WrestleMania XXXV, Hawkins and fellow native Long Islander Ryder challenged current Raw Tag Team Champions The Revival to a title match at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. The champs said they’d take it under consideration in the video of the four on WWE.com. (Thursday afternoon, WWE's Twitter account confirmed that the match was on.) Ironically, the currently winless Hawkins ended the vignette by telling Ryder that they have “nothing to lose.”
And he’s not wrong. Finally getting to compete again at WrestleMania, an event so big the company calls it the “Showcase of the Immortals,” is a win no matter the outcome.
A streak without distinction
To squared-circle junkies “The Streak” means one thing: The Undertaker’s 21-match undefeated run at WrestleMania before finally getting pinned by Brock Lesnar in 2014. But a look at Hawkins’ Twitter profile shows off his own streak, a WWE record of 0-269.
WWE Superstar Hawkins hasn’t won a match since 2016.
In wrestling parlance, someone who loses is said to be “counting the lights,” a reference to the wrestler’s view while lying face-up on the mat and taking a three-count. But Hawkins is counting his blessings these days with a rejuvenated career that ironically started with another loss — losing his job with WWE in 2014.
Hawkins (who was born Brian Myers and graduated from Glen Cove High School in 2003) experienced a meteoric rise in the business after hooking up with Ryder (known as Matt Cardona when he graduated from Merrick’s Calhoun High School in 2003) at the New York Wrestling Connection’s school in Deer Park in 2003. Hawkins and Ryder made their way to WWE, becoming long-haired doppelgängers and backup for WWE Superstar Edge. They even got the chance to attack Edge’s opponent, the Undertaker, during the main event of WrestleMania XXIV in Orlando in 2008.
But by 2014 his career had idled, and he teamed up with Pat Buck — a fellow wrestler and owner of the New Jersey-based Pro Wrestling Syndicate promotion and school — for the next step.
“To be quite honest, I started this school with Pat for a very selfish reason, because WWE wasn’t using me and didn’t have me on the road,” Hawkins says. “I was kind of sitting around doing nothing.”
Hawkins had already wanted to start a wrestling school — and doing so would also give him a chance to stay wrestling-sharp, something you can’t replicate on a treadmill.
Hawkins and Buck opened Create A Pro in 2014, and WWE later that year released Hawkins. Now, Hawkins says, it was “one of the best things to happen to me in my entire life.”
Coaching by suggestion
The first thing you notice, watching Hawkins train students in Hicksville is the lack of absolutes. Whether a wrestler is applying a twist to a standing arm bar or throwing someone into the ropes before taking a shoulder block, Hawkins’ approach is more suggestive than instructive. “I would do this” is a regular phrase — “don’t” isn’t.
“A lot of wrestlers and coaches, they only see things one way,” says his partner, Buck, who lives in Astoria, Queens. “So they think, for example, if you hit the ropes, one person believes it has to be with the left foot, another coach will say it has to be with the right foot.”
But as Hawkins explains of his and Buck’s approach, “It’s flavors of ice cream, and you may like chocolate and I may like vanilla, and that’s just the art of pro wrestling — it’s all over the place.
“As long as everyone doing it is safe, that’s the true art of it — to be as believable as possible, but everyone can still go home at the end of the day. As long as that’s there, there’s no true right or wrong.”
Hawkins’ says his quick rise out of New York Wrestling Connection denied him the camaraderie and intimacy that develops among wrestling prospects who toil in near anonymity far from the spotlight. Going on the road while helping run Create A Pro filled that void.
“I tell people all the time, I’ve loved wrestling since I was 5 years old,” Hawkins said. “It’s all I’ve ever known, all I’ve ever cared about. So, in my mind it comes in all shapes and forms. I know WWE is the biggest and the best and the be-all, end-all, and that’s fantastic, and I’ve been very blessed to work there as much as I have.
“But wrestling is still special if it’s in a high school gym or a VFW [hall] or something like that,” he says. “So, one of my dreams was to be in WrestleMania, and I did that when I was 22 or whatever, which is ridiculous, and I’m not complaining. But I still had the dreams of, like, piling in the car with guys and taking ridiculously long drives, and going to these VFWs and gyms and churches . . . to prove myself on my own in that way.”
His work on the independent scene from 2014 to 2016 caught WWE’s attention and earned him a spot back with the company almost two years to the day of his release. Now he straddles both worlds, often training students on Thursday nights and traveling Friday mornings for a run of WWE shows through Monday.
That often means an early Tuesday flight after “Monday Night Raw” to be home in Merrick with his daughter, McKenzie, who will turn 2 in June. (Hawkins married his wife, Elizabeth, in 2015 and counts not having to plan a wedding around a WWE schedule as another blessing of his sabbatical.)
“It’s cool seeing Brian on TV because I can always text him after and say, ‘Hey man, that was awesome,’ ” explains Rockville Centre’s Max Caster, 29, an original Create A Pro student who helps train and performs on the school’s shows.
Caster, who at one point during the training session teamed with Hawkins to show the students how to reverse an Irish whip coming off the ropes, says, “I can see what he does [on TV] and just relate to it.”
It’s his streak to be sure
What Caster has seen Brian do a lot is lose. As with the Undertaker’s streak, nobody knew when Hawkins started losing it would become an integral part of the storyline.
“People were tweeting me that someone wrote some article that it was my 100th match in a row [that I lost]. And I was like, well that’s not untrue, for sure,” Hawkins says. “That’s gotta be true, because I haven’t won . . . So I was like, if I’m going to be a loser, why don’t I just be the best loser they’ve ever seen.”
At one point, Hawkins explains, WWE was going to have him win. But he suggested otherwise and found his biggest niche in years.
“I look forward to wrestling so much more now, because when I go out there people truly care whether I win or lose,” Hawkins says. “Some of the most popular guys on the roster can’t say that.”
His ability to turn loss into opportunity has been noticed so that while he healed from a recent injury, WWE asked him to trade his spandex for a suit and tie to work as a producer.
But for this year’s WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium he’s eager to be in the ring — and not where he was last time WrestleMania was there, in 2013.
“I watched it with my family in the press box, never even opened up my gear bag in my dream stadium where my favorite football team, the Jets, play” he says. “It would have been something very special for me. So, it’s cool to kind of come back home with all that has happened since then and get some redemption.”
Tiny wrestling action in a podcast
Long Islanders Curt Hawkins and Zack Ryder and have also re-formed their tag team — in the podcast world.
Last year the former WWE Tag Team champions and lifelong wrestling fans debuted the Major Wrestling Figure Podcast — which drops Friday mornings — in which they talk about their favorite hobby, collecting wrestling toys.
“It’s funny because when I met Curt at wrestling school in 2003, we didn’t like each other at all,” says Ryder, who was Matt Cardona when he graduated in 2003 from Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick. “In fact, we viewed each other as competition. We had a similar build, the same age, we were both starting at the same time, and neither of us got into the wrestling business with dreams of being a tag-team guy.
“And it wasn’t until we realized we both were 18 years old [and] still collecting wrestling toys, wrestling figures that we started bonding over that,” he says. “And eventually enough people said, ‘Hey, you guys look alike, why don’t you become a tag team?’ So, while we were becoming friends in real life, we were also becoming partners.”
That bond helped them navigate the WWE early on.
“My generation of pro wrestlers, when we grew up wrestling was very romanticized — with bedsheets and action figures and video games and stuff,” Hawkins says. “So when we first got on the roster there were a lot of grizzled, hardened guys way older than us that we couldn’t really relate to, and it was almost one of our deepest, darkest secrets that Zack and I were, like, real fans, and grew up loving it and still had the actions figures and still collected . . . and we’re out there now, going to be 34-year-old men this year, blatantly talking about our action figure collections with no shame.”
Hawkins credits Ryder with the idea for the podcast. They were already going to talk about wrestling figures when they got together, he says Ryder reasoned, so why not record their conversations and see what happens? The podcast was just the latest example of their symmetry: Just as Hawkins regained WWE prominence in a unique way — through his lengthy losing streak — Ryder did so with his “Z! True Long Island Story,” a YouTube show that went viral when it launched in 2011.
Now, Ryder says, he hopes their partnership might make a comeback inside the ring the way it has outside.
“Our prime is still ahead of us,” Ryder says, “and I can’t wait to see what we do together.”
WHEN I WHERE 7 p.m. Sunday, (First show begins at 5 p.m. on WWE Network, streaming) at MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey.
INFO For the first time, a women’s match will be the main event: Ronda Rousey, Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch will compete, with both Rousey’s Raw Women’s Championship and Flair’s SmackDown Women’s Championship on the line.