Mike Bennett has found his place in Ring of Honor, WWE, and IMPACT Wrestling over the last decade, but before that he was paying his dues.
Part of paying those dues were a series of matches in 2007, which saw a couple of WWE Heat appearances. In those, Bennett worked against Cryme Tyme. As is tradition, he put the contracted stars over, and had no problem doing it, as he told Fightful.
"It’s one of those things where if you’re in the industry, you know kinda how WWE works where when they’re in a different town they bring in local talent to either have a match or be a security guard or be someone sitting at a bar or a restaurant or whatever. At that time they were running Sunday Night Heat and they were pushing Cryme Tyme. So, they were looking for two guys to wrestle. I think the first time it was me and a guy named Danny Jaxx, it was in Washington, D.C," Bennett said.
While he was excited to lose and be on television. Unfortunately for him, he caught the wrong kind of attention from WWE's biggest star at the time -- John Cena.
"I did the match with Cryme Tyme and JTG used to do this thing, ‘cause he had a grill, so that was like his calling card. He had this idea where I make him look like a fool in the ring and then he wanted me to make fun of him. Sure. I didn’t think anything of it. Okay, I did the thing. The match ended. We got to the back. Everyone was really nice. 'Thank you, thank you, thank you.' Then I feel a tap on my shoulder. 'Oh, who is that?' This is my first ever time in WWE, ever, I turn around and it’s Cena and he goes, 'Did you do [you can’t see me taunt] out there?' I was like, 'Uh, what?' He said, 'Did you do ‘you can’t see me’?' I went, 'No. no, I did [JTG’s taunt].' He goes, 'Don’t ever do [my taunt] ever again.' I tried to explain, but then I was like, just keep your mouth shut. Don’t say anything. I looked at him and said, 'Yes, sir.'"
Bennett was terrified. He wasn't bothered by it, he was just afraid that he bothered someone who had influence over the potential of him gaining the spot.
"So, after that, I went, 'Well, I’m never working for this company ever again.' This is it. I never held a grudge. I just remember my heart dropping into my stomach and thinking, 'Oh, my God. I’m done.' I’m absolutely done. He’s John Cena. He thinks I did [his taunt] to make fun of him. I’m sure he just saw a clip and just was like, “Are you kidding me?' I mean, I probably would have acted the same way, too. 'This guy’s stealing my shit? Are you kidding me?'" John’s very protective of his stuff and you have to be. I mean, you don’t want people just coming in and stealing your shit, I just remember thinking 'What am I going to do?' I remember talking to my mom on the phone that night, and she’s asking, 'How did it go?' I went, 'John Cena yelled at me.'"
Mike Bennett did end up in WWE, even though it was a decade later. He never ended up bringing the situation up to John Cena. He even feels ridiculous being that worried about it so much at the time.
"No, but if he did bring it up I was gonna be like, 'Absolutely not.' That’s one thing I regret. Like I said, I like John. He’s a great guy. I like him a lot. He’s always been good to me when I got there. That’s one thing I regret, I wanted to tell him that story and say 'You got so mad at me and I didn’t do anything wrong!' But, I didn’t. But, yeah, looking back on it, I thought my career was over. Now I think about it and it's 'Eh, whatever. We all screw up.'"
Mike Bennett actually didn't just do extra and enhancement work for WWE, he went a bit of everywhere. Even in Ring of Honor, where he made his biggest impact, he was used well before he ended up signing there. Once against one of the longest tenured ROH wrestlers in Rhett Titus, another against one of the shorter tenured wrestlers in Daniel Puder.
"The Rhett Titus was a dark match and then the [Daniel] Puder was on the main show. He’s a nice dude. He was great. He actually kept apologizing. He said 'I wish I could let you get more in, but this is what they want.' I was like, 'Dude, you work here. I don’t. I’m okay with it.' It was so weird back then because Bobby Cruise, the ring announcer for Ring of Honor, has always been a close friend of mine. So, he kept getting me these opportunities at Ring of Honor. Every time I got the opportunities, I would always go and talk to Gabe Sapolsky, who was booking at the time," said Bennett.
Sapolsky's endorsement was a double edged sword for Bennett. Sapolsky was so confident in Bennett's presentation, look and ability that he just figured Mike would hit the bricks and head to WWE at the first opportunity.
"He was a big fan. He was saying, 'I want to bring you to Ring of Honor.' But, then he would always tell me the same thing. He’d always say, 'But I’m pretty sure WWE’s going to sign you soon. So, I don’t want to bring you in, if you’re just going to leave and go there.' But, they’re not signing me, and not even talking to me and I’m trying to get my name out there. Can you please give me a job? It was always the same thing. It was always, 'Well, I think you’re going to go to WWE.' That’s what a lot of people said in my career. 'Well, you’re custom built for WWE.' My career’s weird. Because you would think, 'Oh, you’re custom built for WWE,' but then when I got to Ring of Honor I liked being there. Then I went to New Japan really liked being there. Then I went to WWE and then I was thinking 'All I want to do is go back to Ring of Honor and New Japan.' Because I had so much fun there. Me and Maria always joke, our careers have never gone, at all, the way we expected it. This is just another thing. If you had told me in 2019, “You're going to get released' I probably would have said I believe that. If you told me it’s in the middle of a damn pandemic, I would have said 'Get the hell out of here.' This is where we’re at and I’m like, 'Alright, we’ll figure it out now.'"
In 2009, Bennett had the benefit of a tryout against a respected veteran in Billy Gunn. A longtime coach, talent relations and producer got him the gig.
"So, that was through Terry Taylor. I did a couple seminars with Terry Taylor and I think he was Head of Talent Relations at TNA at that point. Bob Evans, who was my trainer and a friend of mine, was running Terry Taylor’s seminars. Brutal Bob, God love him, man. He’s the best. I love that guy. He was running seminars with Terry Taylor, and so I did the seminars and eventually Terry pulled me aside and he says, “Can you give me your info? I’d love to have you come down for a try-out match.” Lo and behold, I think it was a couple weeks later, he sent me flight info and stuff and flew me down. He’s like, “You’re going to work with Billy Gunn." That’s awesome. He’s like, “You guys are going to be on first. It’s going to be the dark match.” Cool. Billy was great. He was great. Talk about a guy. He found me before I could even find him. He came up to me, first thing he ever said, “Hey, have you ever worked in a six-sided ring?” I hadn't. He said, “Let’s go out there, let’s figure it out. Because if you go out there for the first time and you’ve never done it, you’re going to be so off.” So, he was great about that," Bennett recalled.
Even though Bennett was over the moon about the opportunity....things did not go as planned.
"The funny thing about that is, we were supposed to be on first. Because everything started getting so crazy during the day, we went last. Not only, like you said, not only did we go last, but we went last after a thirty minute Iron Man Match between AJ Styles and Kurt Angle. That’s one of the greatest matches I’ve ever seen in my life. But, if you want to know the star power of Billy Gunn—that crowd still reacted for us because he was so over. But, I just remember watching this match and Billy Gunn kept looking at me like, 'You ready, kid? You ready?' I was like, 'I don’t know. I have no idea.'"
Bennett was getting a lot of extra work an enhancement matches, but wasn't getting signed. While his look at the time screamed 'WWE guy,' he thinks that may have hurt him.
"I had all these looks and no one signed me, but I was just like, “Alright.” I’ve always understood wrestling was going to be a long journey. I always had it in my head that I’m in this for the long haul. I’m not in this to get rich and get famous. I love professional wrestling. That actually just made think of it, that was a tough pill for me to swallow when I first got to Ring of Honor. Because when I first got to Ring of Honor, I had this stigma about me that I was just this body guy that wanted to get to WWE. It drove me nuts because I have such a love for professional wrestling and such a passion for it that I used to be like, “No, you don’t understand. I’ve been doing this for almost nine, ten years before I even got to Ring of Honor. I love this business. I love being part of it. I always knew I was going to be in it for the long haul. I never knew where it was going to take me, but I was thinking, “This is a marathon, not a sprint.” After all those companies told me no or were basically were like, “Well, maybe.” It was always a maybe. No one ever said no, they were always like, “Well, we’ll leave the door open.” Which I said-- “That’s no. Just tell me it’s no. I understand how this works.”
Feedback and input is always important for a growing act and performer to improve and get a call back or even a contract. It's not always positive, and we asked Bennett to elaborate. Not only did he do that, he named names.
"One of the worst feedbacks I’ve ever gotten in my entire life was from Ty Bailey, used to be Talent Relations at WWE. So, he had seen me wrestle and I had talked to him. ‘Cause once I got into the system at WWE, “Nova” Mike Bucci was the one who kept getting me all those dark matches and try-outs because he wanted to get me signed. He was actively trying to get me signed. Once he lost his job, Ty Bailey came in. Ty Bailey took over, Nova said to him, “Here’s a list of guys that I’m looking at that I think you should look at and possibly sign.” I was on that list. I remember doing a show and then Ty Bailey pulled me aside. He’s like, “You work good. You look different. But, you’re not unique enough.” I remember looking at him and asked “Well, what does that mean?” He’s like, “I don’t know, you’re just not unique enough.” I said, “But, you just said I look different. Doesn’t that make me unique?” He said, “Not enough.” I remember being like, “Alright.” When he said that to me, I was the epitome of the guys they were hiring. I literally was. I was 24 or 25 at the time. I was in good shape. My hair was cut. I was the epitome of what they were looking for. So, when he said that, I was like, “What the hell?” Because, like I said, I only wanted to work for WWE until I got to Ring of Honor. It was always WWE or bust in my head. So, it was always, “What do they want? What do they look at and I’ll cater myself towards that.” Then, when I got to Ring of Honor and all bets are off, because everyone at Ring of Honor was different."
Things ended up working out for Bennett. He's appeared in WWE, ROH, NJPW and IMPACT among other places, and is currently signed to Ring of Honor.