One of the people at the forefront of the marriage and crossover between MMA and pro wrestling is a man that has no professional MMA fights, but plenty of credibility -- Killer Kross.
If you've been to Fightful before, MMA, pro wrestling, and the way that the two often mesh together is nothing new. We were founded on it. The likes of Matt Riddle, Brock Lesnar, Dan Severn, Ken Shamrock, Bobby Lashley and others stateside may have introduced you to it. Killer Kross is hoping to help take it one step further with Future Stars of Wrestling.
Kross is hosting "Natural Born Killers" on Friday, July 5 at the FSW arena in Las Vegas. Featuring the likes of Frank Mir, Tom Lawlor, Stephan Bonnar, Gina & Dave Mazany and other UFC stars, the show brings elements of the smash-hit Bloodsport events, elements of MMA, elements of pro wrestling all together. We could talk about the specifics and links between the worlds all day, but Kross would rather show you.
Killer Kross wasn't pegged for the first Bloodsport event, hosted by now-WWE Superstar Matt Riddle, and Riddle even confirmed to us that at the time, Kross wasn't considered. He was about three and a half years into his run as a pro wrestler, but hadn't made his splash on the United States stage nationally, despite appearances for Global Force Wrestling, AAA, and Lucha Underground in various capacities. After hitting it big on Impact Wrestling TV in 2018, his shoot-style work was able to shine through on a grander stage.
Still, not many knew just how extensive the shoot background of Kross was. He was a bit of a chameleon, able to adapt to whomever he works, and made it seamless.
"I grew up doing catch wrestling and jiu jitsu and boxing, during the time when Jean Claude Van Damme ruled the movie screen," Kross told Fightful. "Everyone wanted to kick like Van Damme, and nobody was kicking like that in my family. They said if I wanted to learn to kick like that, I'd need to go out somewhere and find somebody else to do that. I got involved with kyokushinkai, which led me to muay thai, freestyle kickboxing, and finally over to Mauricio Vaio, who was a part of the old guard of Chute Box in Brazil. He'd left Brazil and moved to Canada when I was living there, and studied under him for a while. He was teaching basically freestyle vale tudo, which led to me moving to Las Vegas and pursuing other things. I've always been involved in combat sports since I was a kid."
When you take a look at the man in person -- billed at 6'3", 250 pounds, he looks like what the stereotypical MMA prospect would look like to many outsiders. He would expand on that Las Vegas move, saying that the "Fight Capital of the World" in Nevada helped draw him in.
Plenty of events, plenty of camps, and plenty of opportunity. However, that didn't translate to plenty of fulfillment.
"I'd originally moved to Las Vegas to fight pro," said Kross, ahead of this weekend's Future Stars of Wrestling show in the same city. "I got into the pro camps, and to be frank I actually just fucking hated it. If you're a man, you've probably wanted to punch somebody in the face. It's glorified, the competition setting, of mixed martial arts. The reality is when you get into a pro camp, it's seven days a week, you're up at 5 am, you do your road work, you come home and shower, have your breakfast, and train the rest of the day or you're going to get your fucking teeth blasted out on TV. I didn't love it enough to pursue it as a profession. I love it recreationally and love doing it. It was really cool and I got to work with a lot of interesting people," said Kross.
For Kross, the fight game was something he was born into, and quite honestly, woke up to many mornings. The idea that he would eventually land in Las Vegas looking to fight professionally wouldn't be that much of a surprise to anyone who knew how things went during his formative years.
"I would go to bed at night at 4 or 5 years old in like December. 4 o'clock in the morning, my father would carry me out of the bed into the car, and he would have to be at the gymnasium at least by 6 AM. I would wake up to hearing people getting knocked out, hitting a heavy bag, hitting a collegiate mat. My father was always training fighters. I grew up around combat sports. I can't preface it enough. Being involved with that, I have a lot of natural behavioral patterns and movements and navigational patterns. I'm just drawn to it," Kross said.
As mentioned, the former White Rabbit of Lucha Underground had combat sports ingrained in his mind, his motivations, and movements practically out of the womb. Remove the word "sports" from that term, and it still applies. Kross came from a family of combatants, some of whom didn't understand his fascination with the scripted, unreal or "fake" world of professional wrestling.
If the pure combat skill was there, it didn't seem like the inspiration followed. He wanted to be a wrestler. Compulsively, he thought about it, even when he went above and beyond to forget it.
"I've always wanted to be a part of pro wrestling and a professional wrestler. I came up in a family of armed service. One side was military, the other side was army, and we were all blue collar people. I've been very fortunate to be good at what I choose to to do, whatever that is. I was financially secure and stable in my endeavors. When you grow up and become a man you realize that money being available doesn't necessarily equal fulfillment. I didn't have an internal network that supported getting involved with professional wrestling. I had (military) killers in my family, literally. They were like 'if you can beat the daylights out of people for real, and you can do this stuff, why would you get involved with something that's not real?' Professional wrestling is a beautiful art. If you can do this, and you're over, and you can elicit an emotional response and maestro an audience at home, it's the ultimate art. It had nothing to do with the competition setting. My family was very rooted in that and very difficult to gamble on myself and say I know in my heart I could do this. But it didn't matter if I knew I could do it, no one else did. I went and tried my hand at it, and the first week I was training I was already performing in the ring, and it was the best decision I ever made. Prior to pro wrestling and my 'late arrival,' I was always involved in executive protection work. Bouncing, bodyguarding. I was a bodyguard for celebrities. I had every job in the world. I tried every job in the world to make me forget about pro wrestling. It was on my mind 24/7 since I was a kid. If I went to my grave without trying this, I was going to be very disappointed. You know deep down where you're supposed to be and what you're supposed to be doing, if you deny yourself that, you're never going to be spiritually fulfilled," Kross explained.
Kross was off to the races. He took to pro wrestling quickly, and within his first full year had already worked for Global Force Wrestling and Lucha Underground, which is an amazing feat in itself. Still, he didn't land on the April 2018 show that would be the genesis of Natural Born Killers -- Game Changer Wrestling's Bloodsport.
Game Changer Wrestling lives up to their namesake. They promote a wealth of events that influence the wrestling industry, many with themes. From an uninspired (by design) show hosted by Orange Cassidy to Joey Janela's Spring Break, a no-rope, no-pin, KO and submission only show hosted by UFC veteran Matt Riddle was a natural, and when Riddle headed to WWE, former UFC Heavyweight Champion Josh Barnett took things over.
Though Riddle confirmed that Kross wasn't considered for the first go around, things sure change in a year. Between April 2018 and April 2019, Kross had become a breakout star across multiple companies. Not just for his in-ring work, but for his methodical promo work, as well. Kross was selected to perform on the WrestleMania weekend kickoff show by Barnett himself.
"Kross was a Barnett pick. He didn't need to work hard to sell me on him, but Josh definitely was the one that wanted Kross in," said GCW's Brett Lauderdale. "His performance didn't surprise me. Everyone I asked said he was legit."
While Lauderdale didn't doubt Kross' presence on the show after consulting with others, Kross vs. Davey Boy Smith Jr. wasn't pegged by many to steal the show. Kross excelled on the card in the striker vs. grappler match.
"It was awesome. Working Bloodsport was a dream come true. I was always a big fan of UWF-i growing up and that sort of platform doesn't exist anymore. They put that together and I was able to contribute something special, and unique and be a part of it, that's a great privilege. I had a blast working with Harry. You couldn't get someone more legit from the professional wrestling scene than Harry. People said they enjoyed and liked what they paid for, and that's the endgame. They enjoyed it. I would love to do it again," said Kross.
For all of the unknown that existed about the performer before 2018, and even before Bloodsport 2, now we're not in a situation where Kross is new to pro wrestling. He's not new to television, either. He's sought out by WWE, and any number of other companies while remaining a key player in Impact Wrestling. He's carrying that recognition over to Future Stars of Wrestling, and carrying a special style of wrestling over there as well, and that Bloodsport performance may have helped pave the way for Natural Born Killers.
"To be frank with you, I'm not making a living off of pro wrestling," Kross said, as he leveled with Fightful. "I'm doing my best and paying my dues and enjoying the experience, so I'm not complaining whatsoever. Rewarding, monetarily? No. But I didn't pursue wrestling for the money. I don't have some false sense of entitlement to be rewarded by what I'm putting in. I'll be rewarded by how fans observe my value. If I'm working for a place that isn't going to support how the fans value me, I'm working in the wrong place and I'll go somewhere else. As a professional wrestling (is that style) rewarding? Yes it is. It's rewarding when people watch my stuff and I get feedback, it's very flattering. There were a lot of flattering things said about the match that I and Harry Smith/Davey Boy Jr had WrestleMania week. I didn't think I'd have that platform or that setting. I thought I was going to be the first one to launch this until Bloodsport came around. I don't even care that it wasn't me that was the first one to launch this. I'm just so happy somebody did it, because it's amazing. If we can find the right players to do it -- and not a lot of people can -- I feel like people will appreciate it. I have certain things I'd like to contribute, one of them is to make sure people get their money's worth, and try to give back to the industry. There are guys that can do this, they just don't have a place to do it. If I can create a place to do that, and contribute, I'll be happy."
The first memory Kross has is seeing a painted up, yolked Ultimate Warrior pinning Hulk Hogan for the WWF Championship at WrestleMania VI. Needless to say, that isn't where his shoot-style aspirations or motivations were born, but you could say that his love for a good story did.
The UWF-i influence on Kross is evident. As it pertained to connecting the dots between his shoot experience and his love for the worked art of pro wrestling, it was who Vince McMahon would once call ECW's "sawed-off monster" - Taz.
"One day I got Fight Network, I discovered UWF-i. I got that feeling when I was a young kid watching Taz," confessed Kross. "I would watch Taz and say 'maybe this stuff is worked, but Taz is for real.' I had a different perception of the delivery of amateur wrestling, judo, and freestyle kickboxing in pro wrestling. It just looks more real. It is a bit of a more abusive style, but you're not going to dish it if you can't take it, so I'm not complaining. I think there's a market for it and I think the direction in which pro wrestling is going -- I'd say a hybrid lucha libre style -- I think there is a void for this style. Because I've been involved with it since I was a little kid, I think I owe it to pro wrestling to help keep it alive."
Kross landed in Las Vegas looking to pursue a professional MMA career, and ended up with a professional wrestling career. With a heavy MMA history in the city he calls home, he believes the time is right to make those worlds meet. In Vegas, the crossover isn't new, but it's usually someone like Brock Lesnar taking to the cage, capitalizing off his prior pro wrestling fame. Kross believes that the niche community of shoot-style and hybrid wrestling fans can help drive this market.
"I've been saying for five years this city (Las Vegas) needs this genre of pro wrestling. I understand that Pancrase Hybrid Pro Wrestling is a subculture community, but there's a consumer for everything as a lot of businesses say. There's few of us who can do this, and we don't have a canvas to paint this picture so to say, and I've been working very diligently to try to launch this in Vegas. Thanks to Bloodsport, it's really opened the eyes to people in the United States that this even exists. A lot of people didn't know it was out there. I'm doing by best to collect the appropriate people, and what better place to do it than the fight capital of the world," said Kross.
Wrestling and MMA are both full of competitive people, and both are full of competitive fans. Whether it be within the sport, or against one another.
Some wrestling fans think MMA is boring. Some MMA fans consider pro wrestling fake. The nature of the discontent and rivalry has existed forever. Though the bridge is largely repaired and rebuilt, there still seems to be work to be done.
"There was a weird love-hate relationship between MMA and pro wrestling for a long time, and I'm still not sure where that came from. If they were looking at each other like they were competing, that's silly. People know what they're watching. It's 2019. They know what this is. Nothing is more gross to me than someone who is trying to undermine the intelligence of the people who are watching. You don't have to give it away, you don't have to break everything down and explain it to people or insult/undermine their intelligence, we're way past that. People watch shoot interviews," said Kross.
The world of worked MMA isn't new. There were many fights that are on professional MMA records accused, suspected, or are outright obvious as works. Kross hears the complaints from many that businesses are exposed and curtains are pulled back in pro wrestling as well, but he's not buying it.
He opened up out the perception of kayfabe in modern wrestling, and isn't on board with some of the issues being thrown out there.
"The funniest shit to me, some of these guys who have been around a long time, 15-35 years, complaining about the younger generations giving it away, shaking hands at the end of the match, thanking each other at the end of the match," Kross explained. "They're complaining about that while they have a podcast exposing the business. What the fuck are we doing here? You're complaining that the young guys are doing this, while you have a weekly podcasts where you discuss writing, booking, angles that used to happen and you're talking about the last 40 years behind the scenes. It's 2019. I've been critiqued by guys ahead of me who have made millions of dollars, their opinions are valid to me. I don't come from an egocentric place where they don't know what they're talking about. I've been in competition settings since I was a little kid, and I've strongly disliked people I've competed against, and I've still shaken their hands, gone to dinner with them, gotten drinks before. Every occasion is not like that, and every occasion isn't a handshake, either."
A recurring question in our interviews with MMA fighters is "would you ever consider a move to pro wrestling?" The shift in the last three years alone since the July 2016 launch of Fightful has been momentous. The stigma is erasing, and turning into more of a crutch to help extend careers. Kross took a look at the MMA world, and had some ideas of who could make the move over to pro wrestling.
"Cain Velasquez is someone who comes to mind. I think he'd be a perfect fit for professional wrestling. Conor McGregor would be amazing. You wanna talk about a guy who knows how to sell ice to the North Pole, he knows how to draw. Because he's as legit as legit can be, he'd be great in that setting," Kross elaborated.
Future Stars of Wrestling already saw one major MMA name hop over. Former UFC Heavyweight Champion Frank Mir came face-to-face with Kross in Las Vegas with Austin Aries by his side. Aries is familiar to fans across any promotion, as are his antics. Despite his new issues with Mir, Kross thinks that the attitude and constant deceptive habits of Aries will wear on Mir.
"Austin is doing what he always does, he stirs the pot and when he feels like his position may be in jeopardy, he collects front line guys to do his dirty work. That's what he's done with Frank, but I will warn you, Frank is probably one of the smartest people in combat sports, and one of the smartest people I've ever met. Don't count your chickens before they hatch, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Austin one day overstepping his boundaries and Frank breaking him in half," Kross said.
A lot has been said here about motivations and inspirations, and Mir has that in spades. The biggest rival in his professional career is that of WWE juggernaut Brock Lesnar. The two did battle in one of the most heated feuds in MMA history, and now they've both found themselves in pro wrestling. Kross isn't oblivious to this, and he knows that the idea that Lesnar may never fight in MMA again could have lured Mir into his path.
"They never did a third fight," Kross mentioned. "They're 1-1. A lot of people wanted to see a third fight, but for reasons unknown to me, it never happened. I think it would be cool to let them go in a pro wrestling ring. Who knows what could happen there? That's a match that has money printed all over it."
It isn't just the likes of Frank Mir...or Stephan Bonnar...or Gina & Dave Mazany.... or even established crossover stars like Tom Lawlor that look to increase their portfolio on the event. Kross pointed to Simon Gotch -- a WWE veteran sometimes known as Simon Grimm -- as a guy who could use the Future Stars of Wrestling Natural Born Killers, Bloodsport format and platforms to bolster an already well-established wrestling career, and maybe turn a few heads in the process.
Gotch, who competes for MLW regularly and had "Prize Fight Challenges," also was highlighted on this year's Bloodsport, and much like Kross, didn't have the UFC pedigree that some did. Still, the background is there, and looks to be highligted.
"Simon Gotch -- I know he's not from the immediate professional fighting circuits and mixed martial arts. He doesn't like to put himself over, but he's a very good grappler. He's got a legitimate background, and if you just pay attention to his footwork and the way he's releasing people out of his hips, and the way he's throwing certain things, he's doing more than just recreational training. I think he takes a lot of pride and passion in what he does, and I appreciate it," said Kross.
Kross' quick ascent in both the national wrestling scene, and the shoot-style wrestling scene is drawing plenty attention from UFC veterans, even beyond Josh Barnett's endorsement and Frank Mir's challenge.
Earlier this year, ahead of Bloodsport, we interviewed UFC veteran Phil Baroni. It was here we learned more about Kross' past than the likes of Impact Wrestling and Lucha Underground let on, and Baroni got pretty personal in calling out the man.
"I'd like to get my hands on Kevin Kross. I don't like that kid, I got a long history with (him)," Baroni told us. "I knocked his father out in a toughman contest back in the day and we've had bad blood ever since. That's when I was in college. (Kross and I) wrestled in FSW and had some bad blood. We had some shoot wrestling match in Vegas, and he's always in Vegas training. Why do you think he's always training? He knows what's going on. We're going to cross paths sooner than later. I'm calling him out on your show right now. I don't know that Josh will let that happen, but I see that he's signed to the show," Baroni said. "He started out as a fighter too, he trained with Wanderlei Silva. Another reason I don't like him."
I pressed Kross on this a couple of times, and he had a much more light-hearted approach. Guys like Baroni have the ability to get under an opponent's skin and force an issue or a fight, but Kross took a cool-headed direction instead when asked about it in Las Vegas.
"I love Phil. He's a character, he's out of his mind, which is why we get along. If it was booked for me and him to square off at Bloodsport, I would have did it. It wasn't, and he did great anyway, didn't he?" Kross would expand in our phone interview later. "I'll compete against anyone in a pro wrestling ring. He doesn't understand, he's calling me out, I'm not the booker, I'm not the promoter. If someone sees money in it and the type of thing that will sell tickets, they'll book it. He knows that, and I know that, too. He's just doing what he thinks is his best to sell the idea and concept. If people want to see it, there will be a demand for it. If people don't want to see it, we'll hear about it. That's the truth of the matter. He's talking to the wrong people. He needs to get in touch with the people running the shows and pitch the idea. Of course I'm down, without a doubt."
The Pancrase, UWF-i, Bloodsport, and now FSW Natural Born Killers style isn't for everyone, whether it be a fan or promoter. Almost a prodigy as a professional in how fast he's progressed, Kross recognizes it, and will adjust accordingly. Though his love for shoot-style is clear, even more clear is his love for the magic that pro wrestling and combat sports bring, and the ways you can merge and differentiate the two.
"It's a combination of things. I'll never take the same approach ever. I'll look at who is on the card, I'll think about the overall narrative and how to make what I'm doing that night different than everything else on the card. There are variances in what people are watching on television. I've only been doing this for five years, so the fan is still very much alive. I remember what I wanted to see as a fan. I think that if you live in this egocentric place of 'I'm the pro wrestler and the fans don't know,' you're going to be one of those guys that people can't stand on television, and you don't have real heat, you have 'go away' heat. I think it's important to remember what fans want, and sometimes you give it to them."
Kross and Future Stars of Wrestling are looking to solidify the art, and satisfy those that have been yearning for it.
"I think it's great and I think they're going to have a really good time, and their fan base is really going to enjoy seeing them shine in a different type of performance art. The art is subjective, is it not?"
You can see Future Stars of Wrestling's Natural Born Killers on Friday, July 5 at the FSW Arena, and can get tickets at FutureStarsofWrestling.com. Killer Kross, Austin Aries, Simon Gotch, Stephan Bonnar, Frank Mir, Tom Lawlor, Scarlett Bordeaux and Gina & Dave Mazany are all scheduled to appear.