Exclusive interview: Attitude Era star The Jackyl talks to WWE.com about his in-ring career and his new job that you won’t believe
In the early 1990s, a young wrestler named “The Natural” Don Callis was working his way across Canada, sporting a head of long, flowing dark hair and robes that Ric Flair would’ve admired. A strange series of events throughout the remainder of the decade saw the scrappy Aqua Velva transform into a cult leader, an evil network executive, color commentator and, finally, captain of industry. After not crossing paths for more than 10 years, I had the pleasure of catching up with my former ECW announce partner at Madison Square Garden, where he was celebrating his friend Chris Jericho’s 25 years in sports-entertainment. As always, Don didn’t hold back.
JOEY STYLES: Tell us how you started your career in WWE.
DON CALLIS: Don’t you already know all of this?
STYLES: Yes, but WWE.com visitors don’t.
CALLIS: Fine. I was trained in 1989 and retired from full-time wrestling in 1993, so I was going hard for four years.
In 1996, I was brought in to WWE for a tryout as a wrestler. I wrestled Barry Horowitz the first night and Aldo Montoya, who went on to become Justin Credible, the second night. Those were good matches. Then I had a TV match with Marc Mero that was only three minutes long because he was late getting to the arena. Not to say anything bad about someone, but I’m glad it was only three minutes because he was a crowbar. It was like locking up with a bag of boards. Brutal.
I ended up getting signed to a deal by WWE a year later for a tag team with Rick Martel called The Supermodels. Rick decided he wanted to go to WCW, but I still wanted to come to WWE, so Bret Hart helped me get signed alone.
STYLES: Was the plan for you to be an in-ring competitor?
CALLIS: Vince McMahon is great at identifying people’s strengths, so he told me that I would be a wrestler/manager like Johnny Polo. I wasn’t thrilled with that comparison [laughs]. I was an average wrestler but above average on the mic, so I knew it was a great opportunity.
I was originally supposed to be the manager of The Hart Foundation, but instead WWE put me with The Truth Commission. It was like apples and oranges, which I think is a nice way to put it [laughs]. My first show with The Truth Commission was here in Madison Square Garden in 1997. Right in this very building I came out wearing a red beret, a pair of riding of pants and really tight, army-green T-shirt. The gimmick didn’t work.
STYLES: You probably made it work as well as it could.
CALLIS: I took a chance on a show in Hershey, Pa., and didn’t wear what I was supposed to and didn’t say what I was supposed to. I figured it would either get me fired or get me over. That’s when The Jackyl segued into wearing all-black and being a cult leader.
STYLES: So how did you wind up as a manager and announcer in ECW?
CALLIS: I was released by WWE around Christmas 1998.
STYLES: What did you do to get released?
CALLIS: Apparently everything [laughs]. But I called Bret Hart, who was in WCW, and he told me because I hadn’t been on TV in a while that I might want to go to ECW first before trying to get signed by WCW. Lance Storm made it part of his contract negotiations to have Paul Heyman hire me.
I started in Queens, N.Y., the day after my contract expired with WWE. I traveled with Lance for a year-and-half and lived like a monk because he’s no fun. He doesn’t drink or party. All his does is diet, work out and go to sleep early. It was the worst time of my career [laughs].
It was made even worse because Lance, Justin Credible and their manager Jason did their interviews after the show at three in the morning and it took them 30 takes. I would just go straight to the airport at 4 a.m.
STYLES: Does any single moment in your ECW career stand out to you?
CALLIS: The first time I superkicked Joel Gertner on a pay-per-view. The fans didn’t expect it. [Cyrus] was the mouthpiece of the oppressive television network that was stifling ECW. I had been a bully with the power of the network behind me, but ECW fans didn’t know that I could wrestle.
I tried not to bring that character into the announce booth, though, because my job there was to promote the wrestlers, not myself. One of the best things that ever happened to me was after the first pay-per-view I called with you. Sabu came up to me and said, “I really like what you said about me and my match.” I thought, “Wow. This is the best job because you have to get everyone else over instead of just working at getting yourself over.”
STYLES: And we had a lot of fun.
CALLIS: You and I had great chemistry. ECW fans were very smart and played to my character of being with the network. That allowed you and me to push the barriers of traditional commentary. Announcing was a real highlight for me.
STYLES: So you’ve discussed switching jobs from wrestler to manager to announcer. Let’s use that as a segue to what you do now.
CALLIS: I’m President and CEO of an organization called Manitoba Trade and Investment. Manitoba is a province in Canada, Joey. I know you Americans don’t learn anything about Canada in American schools. Canada is the country above America in North America, by the way.
We help private sector companies in Manitoba get their products into foreign markets. We work with more than 500 companies a year. We travel to China, Brazil, Russia, the U.S. and Europe. Wrestling prepared me well for all the travel.
STYLES: How did you transition to a government job after ECW?
CALLIS: It was a weird road. When ECW went out of business I just thought that I’d go to WCW. Eric Bischoff was going to buy the company and talked to me about announcing Monday Nitro with you. I thought, “This is going to be great! I get to work with you having fun while working for a secure company.” Bischoff’s deal fell apart and just like that, wrestling was over for me.
I thought, “I’m going to need to make a career change.” I went back to school and got my MBA, which was a head trip because I had to re-take a few undergrad courses and was in class with 18-year-old kids who had just watched me on ECW. They asked, “What are you doing here?” It really brought me down to earth, so to speak.
I have to give you some credit because, when I got my first job out of school working for the City of Winnipeg, you were one of my references while you were working for a media company here in New York. You said, “If Don wasn’t such a loyal Winnipegger, I’d have him here working for me in New York.” New York is a big deal in Winnipeg. I also got a letter of reference from Tommy Dreamer, but it was on ECW letterhead with blood dripping from the logo so I couldn’t use it.
STYLES: Do you still follow WWE?
CALLIS: I didn’t for years but Lance convinced me to subscribe to WWE Network. I love it. It’s awesome. I watch a lot of the older footage. I watch today’s WWE shows, too, but it’s so different because it’s gone back to being family friendly after the ’90s.
STYLES: What do you want fans to remember you for?
CALLIS: My time in ECW. Paul Heyman was fantastic to me. He let me go out there and flourish on my own. I’ll always remember that Paul was a coach as much as a boss. Working with Paul to start a near riot at the Manhattan Center here in New York was old school, white-hot heat. For me, that was the highlight.
My best creative work was done in WWE when I was given a gimmick that was doomed to failure and changed it within the WWE system to make it work. As a new guy, how great is it to work with Legends like Pat Patterson and all the producers that work backstage here? By the way, how much do I get paid for this interview?
CALLIS: See ya, kid. Let’s do this again in another 10 years.