The Real Mr. Kennedy

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September 06, 2007

Like Vince Lombardi and Brett Favre before him, Mr. Kennedy has broken out of the chilly confines of Green Bay, WI. On the cusp of superstardom, we
travel to his hometown to learn more about the man behind the microphone.

AS ANYONE WHO TUNES INTO RAW CAN ATTEST, Mr. Kennedy knows how to make an entrance. It's no different outside the ring. On a humid summer morning, Mr. Kennedy crosses the threshold of the ultra-chic David Rockwell-designed Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, MN, and there among the fashionistas, the dealmakers and the wannabes, the 6'2", 243-pound Kennedy, tanned and toned, stands coolly in dark blue jeans, white Adidas sneakers and a designer T-shirt. He spots me waiting by the concierge, scans the lobby's museum-like white walls and $7 million modern art collection [there's a life-size sculpture of a gorilla with one arm in the courtyard bar—go figure] and suggests a change of scenery.
"Let's eat," he says. Minutes later, we're sitting in Fogo de Chão, a Brazilian steakhouse where the waiters bring endless arrays of roasted meats on metal spits to the table.
"Would you like chicken breast wrapped in bacon?"
"Oh yeah."
"How about some filet mignon?"
"Put it right there!"
Mr. Kennedy confesses that, like the lyrics in the Soundgarden song "Outshined," he's "looking California, and feeling Minnesota." He just flew in on the red-eye from Los Angeles after contesting his third match in three days…and making an appearance on The New Tom Green Show. Not that he's complaining.

"I love what I do," he says, carving into a chunk of medium-rare rib-eye steak. "If I wasn't making any money from it I'd still be doing it."

He's not just flapping his gums. His family and friends gladly vouch for him. Mr. Kennedy's mother, Sheryl, always knew her son was going to break into show business. Seated in a booth at the legendary Curly's Pub, at Lambeau Field, the hallowed home of the Green Bay Packers, she describes him as a class clown who loved to make others laugh, and says it was at Washington High in Two Rivers, WI, 35 miles south of Green Bay, where he first developed his mic skills while calling the junior varsity and varsity high school basketball games. It was also there that he developed his talent for mimicking people, including principal Bill Wood, whom he once ribbed during the middle of a girl's varsity game. The next day, he was summoned to Wood's office, where Mr. Kennedy figures he spent roughly 80 of the 180 days of senior year.  

Sheryl admits she was skeptical when her son informed her of his intentions to become a professional wrestler. She had hoped he would at least go to Hollywood, citing his love of movies and his history of starring in school plays. She says he was even voted "Most likely to get famous" by his classmates. After seeing him wrestle, though, she knew his path was set.

"Afterward, I told him, ‘I think you found your calling,' " she says.

To this day, the memory of that contest makes her eyes swell with tears. Mr. Kennedy's first match was held in front of 440 people, fought in a blood-and-sweat stained ring—with some of that dried fluid reportedly belonging to The Honky Tonk Man—at the back of the Watering Hole Saloon, a dusty roadside bar not far from Lambeau Field. His friend and trainer Mike "Mercury" Krause, who runs Dojo of Pain, the local wrestling school from which the WWE standout graduated, says he knew a star was born the day Mr. Kennedy stepped between the ropes.

"Nothing was gonna stop him," Krause says. "He was always willing to do what was needed."

As a child, Mr. Kennedy says he watched wrestling programs with his father and fondly remembers the heydays of Hulk Hogan and "Macho Man" Randy Savage. But after getting punished at 10 years old—"I don't even remember what it was for!"—he had his viewing privileges revoked.

FAST-FORWARD A DECADE. After a stint in the U.S. Army, and another as a security guard at the Point Beach Nuclear Plant in Two Rivers, Kennedy is sitting on a friend's couch, nursing a beer and a broken heart from a relationship gone sour.
His friend switches the channel to a wrestling show.
" ‘C'mon man, I'm not watching that, let's watch something else,' " he says.
Then, Stone Cold Steve Austin emerges onscreen, and his protests cease.
" ‘Who's that?' " Kennedy remembers saying to himself. "Stone Cold was drinking beer, flipping off the camera man, flipping off his boss. I thought, this guy's awesome! I hated my boss, I'd love to flip him off." Kennedy says he made up for lost time by becoming an avid viewer of wrestling. He and his roommate, Chad Bonin, a wrestling aficionado, would stay up to the break of dawn replaying tapes of classic events like Starrcade '87, as well as unforgettable matches contested by ring legends such as Ric Flair and Dusty Rhodes.
"He was like a sponge, soaking everything up," says Bonin. "You could see he was gonna make it."

Even if there were a few bumps along the way.

During one of his earliest matches on the indie circuit, Kennedy suffered a life-threatening injury after taking a bad fall while wrestling a 6'7", 400-pound behemoth named Jonas the Giant. He spat blood for days. When he finally checked into the hospital, the doctor informed him that had he waited any longer, he'd likely be dead. Blood had collected on a lung and caused a raging infection. For a time, there was even a chance the doctors would have to remove a part of the organ.

"We thought he had wrestled his last match," says Bonin. Mr. Kennedy's childhood pal, Chris "Saddle Bags" Satterberg, says that it was the worst shape in which he'd ever seen his friend. "He was worried, but he didn't let that stop him," says Satterberg. "He did what the doctors told him. That's the thing about Ken, if he gets knocked down, he'll pick himself up again."

Mr. Kennedy returned to the ring two and a half months later. Anxious to pick up where he left off, he worked every two-bit sideshow he could, whether it was in Chicago, Minneapolis or Nowheresville, U.S.A. At times, the only pay he received was a frosty brew and a slap on the back.

"He wasn't making any money," his mother says. "I had to bail him out of plenty of financial situations." But not because he was indolent. Kennedy always applied the work ethic he learned from his mother's father, a retired farmer and forester who swung an ax until he was 70, and the late Jim Holmes, the strict but loving man whom Mr. Kennedy considers his real father. (Kennedy is no longer in contact with his biological father.) After a 12-hour shift at the nuclear plant, he'd pick up his friends and drive his rattletrap 15 hours to a match in which he'd wrestle. And then he'd turn right around and drive home before starting another taxing 12-hour shift.

"I'd go anyplace to work," he says, in between bites of tenderloin. "Anyplace, anytime—just to get some experience, learn something new or work on a move."

It wasn't until 2003 that Mr. Kennedy finally scored his big break, a developmental contract with WWE. He immediately moved to Memphis to train, accompanied by his girlfriend, Shawn Trebnik, who quit school and her pursuit of a master's degree, to join him.

"We had absolutely no money," Trebnik says of those bleak days. 
"And yet it just felt right," says Kennedy. "I knew I was where I belonged."

ALTHOUGH HE'S ON THE VERGE of superstardom, Mr. Kennedy takes obvious pride in his small-town, feet-on-the-ground roots. In January, he returned home for an autograph charity event scheduled to run for two hours. He only expected 200 fans to show up; 1,500 fans materialized in the bitter Green Bay winter, and the event lasted five hours.
One of the fans standing in line was none other than Washington High principal Bill Wood. He announced his presence by imitating Mr. Kennedy's trademarked ring intro: "I…hail…from…Green…Bay..." The good-natured joke received a huge pop from the audience—and from Mr. Kennedy.

It was a grand homecoming in a town where Packers stars like A.J. Hawk are spotted regularly, and yet no one bats an eyelash.

"You gotta see it," says Krause. "People whisper, ‘Look, it's Mr. Kennedy!' " People whom you'd least expect.

After finishing his Manhattan cover shoot for WWE Magazine, at a studio known more for its high-end fashion than high-flying action, the Superstar from Green Bay squeezes into a crowded elevator on the 14th floor. As the lights tick down (13…12…11…), a Brooklyn Bohemian type who looks like anything but a typical wrestling fan, stammers, "Um, excuse me, but are you Mr. Kennedy?"

The hipster already knows the answer, and sheds all pretenses as he eagerly awaits the reply.

"I…hail…from…Green…Bay…Wisconsin!!!"

The above article can also be found in the October edition of WWE Magazine. Pick up your copy on newsstands today. Or subscribe to WWE Magazine. 

Check out Mr. Kennedy's Talk Loud T-shirt...

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