Chances of making it on the grand stage in professional wrestling are slim at best. To do it as a convicted felon, forget about it.
Well, Hassan Assad couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t just forget about it.
After he served 9 1/2 years in prison, his wrestling journey began in 2001 in Miami.
By 2006, the persona Montel Vontavious Porter, better known as MVP, was born, and the arrogant, gold wearing, well-dressed athlete made it, landing in World Wrestling Entertainment, the top pro wrestling/sports entertainment company in the world.
“When I do look back, and I do reflect on my life and my career often, because I’m very, very appreciative for all the things that have come to me,” Assad said, “it almost seems like it was my destiny.”
Breaking the law
As a youth in Opa-locka, a northern city in Miami-Dade County, Assad played basketball and football with friends in the neighborhood.
“By the time I got to junior high school, I cared less about sports and became more concerned about what was going on in the streets,” he said.
His younger brother, Brad, took a different path, starring in baseball and amateur wrestling at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School. Brad won a state title in wrestling. After graduating high school, he joined the U.S. Navy. Now in the Navy Reserves, he is a decorated Metro-Dade police officer.
Assad, who went another route, did not watch his brother succeed on the wrestling mat, because he was in jail.
“I’m always adamant about this and make this point,” he said. “People will say, ‘Well, you were a kid. You made a mistake.’ No, I didn’t make a mistake. A mistake is something you do unintentionally. I consciously ... broke the law.”
In 1990, Assad, then Alvin Burke Jr., 16, was arrested with three other gang members for armed robbery and kidnapping. They stole more than $80,000 from a cruise ship’s casino on a night cruise in Port Everglades. They took the money from nine ship employees who were counting the cash after the casino closed and then locked them in a storage room.
“The reason I did that is I wanted to live a life less ordinary,” he said. “I grew up in Miami during the time of the Cocaine Cowboys. I saw the drugs. I saw the prestige. I watched the news. I read the newspapers. I was a precocious kid. I was the oldest, and my mom had to rely on me to help out.
“By the time I was 9, I knew what a Rolex Presidential was, and I knew that I wanted one, and around me, it seemed like the people who were honest and hard working didn’t make it or were struggling to make it. More of the people who were around me who were criminals seemed to do real well for themselves, and it was pretty glamorous to boot, the whole Miami Vice scene. That’s what really led me to go down that path.”
Assad served 9 1/2 years of an 18 1/2 year sentence.
Trying to avoid trouble
When Assad, 40, was a toddler, he lived in California. He returned to Miami for first grade.
“My mom [Lynn] felt like raising boys in Los Angeles was a bad idea,” he said. “We moved back to Miami, and everything that she moved away from L.A. for, I ended up getting involved in -- gangs and violence.
“My mom worked a full-time job, a part-time job, went to school, and after several years, we were able to move into a house in Unincorporated Dade County, in between North Miami and Opa-locka.”
At age 14, Assad became part of a graffiti crew, and that morphed into a street gang.
“I went through a phase were fisticuffs became fun and cool,” he said, “and that quickly gave way to stealing cars and armed robbery. Sadly, my first altercation was when I was 15, and I served 6 1/2 months in a juvenile program.”
That didn’t stop Assad. Something personal almost did.
“I got out, and I stayed out for about six months, but then one of my best friends was shot and killed by a rival gang in North Miami,” he said. “At that point, I kind of lost it. So I wanted one big score, and then I was going to go away and never come back. That one big score was the one that cost me to end up going to prison for 9 1/2 years.”
Homecoming with TNA
MVP recently signed with TNA Wrestling, the second largest pro wrestling group in North America, and he will make his TNA pay-per-view debut at Lockdown on Sunday, March 9 in his hometown from the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
“It’s beautiful, because while I’ve been residing in Houston the last several years, Miami is and will always be my home,” he said.
Friends and family live in Miami, including his mom and brother, and they will be at the TNA Lockdown pay-per-view.
“It’s been maybe five years since I last had a chance to wrestle in front of the hometown crowd, and the ovation and support I got then was overwhelming. So to be able to come back home and lead the way on such a major pay-per-view [Lockdown] for TNA, it’s an honor.
“To be at the BankUnited Center, a building I haven’t yet been in, at the University of Miami, I’m a lifelong Hurricanes’ fan; so that sweetens the deal quite a bit.”
Before joining TNA, MVP worked overseas from 2011-13 for New Japan Pro Wrestling.
“It was a long process [to land in TNA],” he said. “When I gave New Japan my notice that I was done, I was ready to take some time off, and I wasn’t ready to come back to pro wrestling. I got a deal with Lionsgate TV for my own television show, and in the next two to three weeks, we’ll be in the pitch phase for my show. I wanted to be back stateside to focus on that.
“TNA had made several overtures to me, but I wasn’t prepared to sign a contract. I didn’t want to commit to anyone. I really liked the freelance feel that I had. After about eight months of on and off communication with TNA, I decided the time was right.”
Rather than someone else creating a persona for him, which happens fairly regularly in WWE, MVP is his own creation, and he brings his original persona -- which succeeded in New Japan and WWE -- to TNA.
“They made it very clear that they wanted to have me aboard,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that in the wrestling industry my work ethic and my creativity are a big part of my reputation, and there are several people in the TNA office who were formerly with WWE; so they know me, and they knew what I could contribute.
“One of the selling points was that they said, ‘We won’t try to tinker with who you are. We want you to be you, and we want you to contribute creatively, and we want you to be involved at every level.’ Being that they were so appreciative of that, it was hard to turn down.”
A lighter travel schedule in TNA compared to WWE also played a role in his decision to sign with the company. It frees him to do other projects like a reality show with Lionsgate TV focusing on the prison system.
“The concept of the show is me going around to some of the most violent jails and prisons in the country and teaching you the viewer how to survive in that prison,” he said. “When I was in prison, I was 16, and by the time I hit the compound I was 17. I was like Halle Berry to a lot of those guys -- a young, pretty kid.”
How did you survive?
“First of all, I was smart. I was intelligent. So I was able to avoid a lot of conflict just by being smart in how I conducted myself,” said Assad, who also dabbles in hip hop music. “Second of all, I knew it was an environment where brutality was respected. By no means was I the toughest guy, but I could take care of myself, and if trouble came my way, I dealt with it swiftly.
“When guys see that, they respect you. Guys who are tough guys tend to respect you, when they see you stand up for yourself. They say, ‘I like that kid. Don’t $%^& with him. The kid’s a stand-up guy.’ The fact, in my case, I kept my mouth shut. I took mine on the chin and didn’t give up any of my co-defendants. I didn’t snitch as they say. That also got me some measure of respect with some of the older convicts. That’s how I survived.”
He made it
One day he’s watching a WWE pay-per-view on the giant screen at Flagler Dog Track, confident he could do it, and several years later, he did do it. People were now watching him on WWE pay-per-views, including a Money in the Bank ladder match on the highest mountain, WWE’s WrestleMania, the Super Bowl of pro wrestling/sports entertainment.
Not only competing in that colossal event -- WrestleMania 24 at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando in 2008 --- but he won the WWE U.S. Title and WWE tag team titles (with Matt Hardy). He even hosted his own talk show segment (The VIP Lounge) on WWE SmackDown, one of WWE’s prime-time TV programs.
In 2008, Pro Wrestling Illustrated, a leading pro wrestling magazine, ranked him #23 of the best 500 singles wrestlers in its annual PWI 500. He competed in four WrestleManias.
Fate has its way sometimes. A corrections officer at the prison spent weekends as an independent pro wrestler, competing on smaller shows. No TV, sparse crowds, little or no money, the indie wrestler is hopeful of a tryout with the big boys (WWE or TNA Impact Wrestling). It’s a long shot. International opportunities can exist, if good enough, and money is better than the indies with established international brands.
Before the opportunity of a lifetime with WWE, he wrestled for IWA in Puerto Rico. He also competed for CCW, FOW, FIP, Ring of Honor and TNA Explosion. Have ring, will travel. He listened, learned and honored his show commitments. He studied the business, watching different styles.
WWE signed him to a developmental contract in 2005, and he competed for Deep South Wrestling in Georgia as Antonio Banks, before getting the call to the show in 2006.
What a convicted felon to do
Paying his dues on the independent circuit in Florida for virtually little or no pay on weekends, he would not quit. Still, he needed to make some money, and being hired is very difficult for a felon. To generate some cash, he became a bouncer for a club in South Beach. He worked alongside legendary street fighter and boxer Kimbo Slice.
“In Florida and many other states, it’s called the Department of Corrections, but make no mistake about it, especially now with the advent of full-profit prisons, there is no sense of correction at all. It’s just warehousing. There are very few programs available to inmates to teach them marketable skills so when they get out, they have some skills to rely on.
“In my case, I was one of those guys. You take a guy, convicted of a felony, send him away to prison for 10 years, and when he gets out, he doesn’t have any marketable skills, because you wanted to be tough on crime. The politicians want to be tough on crime and lock people up with no game plan for what we do for these people when they come back, and they’re coming back to your neighborhood with no skills, and they’re probably better criminals than they were because they just spent 10 years in the school of hard knocks.
“They can’t get a job because they’re convicted felons. You won’t rent them an apartment because they’re convicted felons. So what are they supposed to do?
“I was very fortunate, when I was in prison, because I had older convicts pull me aside and say, ‘Hey kid, you’re smart. Don’t serve the time. Make the time serve you.’ I did lots of reading, and I took correspondence courses from Ohio University. My family paid for them.”
In prison, Assad also earned his high school diploma. Go figure, he met a local indie wrestler, too.
“I was fortunate to meet Primetime Daryl D [his wrestling name],” Assad said. “He was a correctional officer at the Opa-locka Work Release Center. We’d talk about pro wrestling, and he would bring in video tapes for the guys. So I asked him, ‘How do you guys do that without breaking each other’s necks?’ He said, ‘If you’re interested, I’m going to be starting my own promotion, and when you get out, I’ll teach you.’ Well, that was the beginning of the rest of my life.”
Former WCW wrestler Norman Smiley, a Miami Beach Senior High School alum who now works behind the scenes for WWE NXT, along with Florida wrestling legends Rusty Brooks and Soulman Alex G helped train Assad in South Florida.
Meant to be
“My mom took me to the Miami Beach Convention Center when I was in first grade,” he said. “I vividly recall her taking me to see Dusty Rhodes and Sweet Brown Sugar. These guys blew me away. I grew up with wrestling. Me and my cousin, Corey, used to go out in the yard and put figure-four leglocks on each other, after watching Gordon Solie [on Saturdays].
“When I was 15, the first time I was locked up, I was in the Dade County Juvenile Detention Center. [Wedenll] Rozier, who used to wrestle [in Florida] under the name Death Row, brought in a wrestler named Soulman Alex G for a career day, and that’s the first time I met Alex G. Fast forward 10 years or so to the Opa-locka Work Release Center, and here’s Prime Time Daryl D showing video of an indie wrestling show where he gets into it with Soulman Alex G.
“When I got out of prison, Prime Time started training me in a ring in his sister’s backyard, but she had to take the ring down. So Prime Time personally brought me to [former WWE wrestler] Duke the Dumpster Droese’s School where, guess who, Soulman Alex G took over training responsibilities. Soulman Alex G trained me as a favor to Prime Time, and I never paid a dime for wrestling school.”
MVP paid it back and forward, helping others through community service programs in WWE and even returning to CCW, a South Florida indie promotion -- under the guidance of Bruno Sassi, Dan Evans and Blackhart Dave Johnson -- to thank the company and fans, when he made it.
Powerful WrestleMania moment
Before that, when he began wrestling training, after prison, he talked to his mother.
“She and I had a falling out,” he said. “We were sitting down with my nephew, and she said, ‘What have you been up to lately?’ I said, ‘I just enrolled in a professional wrestling school.’ She looked at me with derision and said, ‘[Scoff] Why would you want to do that?’ I remember being very upset with her for not encouraging me or just asking me from a neutral position rather than one of disdain.
“Fast forward a few years to my first WrestleMania [WrestleMania 23 in 2007 before 80,000 fans at Ford Field] in Detroit, and my brothers came over and gave me a card from my mother. She didn’t attend. It said, ‘Wow. WrestleMania. Who would have ever thought? Well, I guess you did.’ That was a pretty powerful moment for me.”
Before signing with WWE, his mom ‘almost’ watched him wrestle The Blackhart in a steel cage for CCW at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek.
“I was told most of it she couldn’t watch,’ he said. “She was sort of watching through cupped hands or through her fingers. I guess it’s difficult to watch your first born son get slammed into a cage and beat with a Kendo stick and bleed.”
• Miami on Lockdown
The TNA Lockdown pay-per-view, with each match in a steel cage, is 8 p.m. EST Sunday, March 9 from the BankUnited Center at the University of Miami in Coral Gables.
TNA champ Magnus vs. Samoa Joe.
Team MVP (Jeff Hardy, team captain MVP and The Wolves Eddie Edwards and Davey Richards) vs. Team Dixie (Austin Aries, team captain Bobby Roode and The BroMans Robbie E and Jessie Godderz).
TNA Knockouts champ Madison Rayne vs. Gail Kim.
The Great Muta and Seiya Sanada vs. Bad Influence (Christopher Daniels and Kazarian).
Tigre Uno vs. Manik.
Mr. Anderson vs. Samuel Shaw.
Cowboy James Storm vs. Gunner.
Your referees are Brian Hebner, Brian Stiffler and Earl Hebner.
For information on Lockdown visit www.impactwrestling.com.
Follow TNA’s social channels including @IMPACTWRESTLING and @TNADixie on Twitter and on Facebook at www.fb.com/IMPACTWRESTLING .
• Making an Impact
TNA Impact Wrestling is 9 p.m. EST Thursdays on Spike TV.