Interview conducted: Thursday, August 22nd, 2013.
Before we talk about your wrestling career, some fans won’t know that you have been involved in working with the Sheriff’s Office and getting your degree two years ago you got your degree, with honours in criminal justice. Were you always interested in the law and did you think that that might be your career long term when you were younger?
Being young – if you let everyone else tell the story, or at least those on the outside looking in – my career was probably going to be in law enforcement, except I was probably going to be on the other side of the bars, if you get my drift! (laughs) I was not a bad child, but I was a very adventurous child, and sometimes I was devious, and so I got in a lot of trouble as a kid. Going forward into High School I kind of honkered down and tightened up and started focussing on my lessons a little more. I was involved in a lot of sports but I could never stay on the team. I played baseball, I played soccer, I played football, but my grades weren’t good enough to keep me in those activities.
So at High School I honkered down, and my grandfather was a cop, my sister was a Sergeant, and so it was only in my last couple of years that I started trying to figure out my career, as to what I would do when I would graduate, because I needed money – I want money and I want it now! (laughs) But I wanted to be taken care of; I wanted to make sure that I had a career. So my sister, who was a Sergeant, informed me – she said “Go to the Police Academy.” As soon as I graduated, that same year I enrolled in the Police Academy and the rest in kind of history.
Was that my plan? Was that my dream? Nope, but it was a goal and I goal that I knew I would be able to accomplish and make a pretty good living straight out of High School. (I was) the youngest guy to come out of my class, the youngest Officer – I was a Corrections Officer at the time, working in the jails – so it was pretty cool.
Do you think that you’ll fall back into that once you’ve called time on your wrestling career?
(laughs) Well that’s to be determined! Obviously as you mentioned – and a lot of people know – I went back and finished my College degree. It was something I started when I was in the Sheriff’s Office. I decided to pursue my degree, because while I was dual certified – meaning certified as a Corrections and a Police Officer – I was not sworn in, because you can’t be a Police Officer or go to the streets, in Jacksonville at least, unless you have a four year degree. So I started College to get the degree so I could go and have my own (Police) car and get on the streets by myself but then, you know, my dream came along. I had the opportunity to pursue my dream, as the old story goes.
I was booking someone into jail and since the jail was overcrowded at the time – or the intake, where you process new criminals was crowded – I started surfing the internet, I think, and I don’t know how I came across this but I believe I was surfing the internet and somewhere I came across the first ever OVW tryout camp for the WWE development system. And it just took off from there – I had the chance to realise my dreams. Will I go back into law enforcement when my ticket is punched and my time is up? That remains to be seen. I can’t say that I would go back to being an Officer or go and work in a prison or a jail, but maybe something in the realm if I decided to – but the Pope got another ten years left in this business, daddy! (laughs) So I haven’t even thought about that yet (life after wrestling).
I assume, then, that you were a fan growing up, which was what led you to go to OVW?
Absolutely, it was always a dream. Here in Jacksonville, Florida, we saw everything that there was to watch – NWA, Florida Championship Wrestling, Georgia Championship Wrestling, World Class Championship Wrestling and, of course, the WWE. So, I was a huge fan from I think it was the age of two or three years old, that I first saw wrestling sitting on my dad’s knee – or sometimes, most of the time, at his feet! (laughs) We would just sit down and watch wrestling with him because that’s what he would always watch. Watching the likes of, of course, Dusty Rhodes, RIc Flair, Pez Whatley, Iceman King Parsons, the Von Erichs, the Horsemen, the Great Kabuki……I could go on and on. Those guys are what made me go “Wow!”
I think the biggest impact – and I don’t know if I ever said this before, ever, in an interview, or to anyone – I think what made it…..what gave me the googly eyes and made me go “Wow, this could be me!” or “This is what I want to do.” was that entrance video to World Class Championship Wrestling. That “boom-bobada-boom-bobada-boom” and when you see that satellite come out of the sky and it starts showing all of that pandemonium in different clips – that was probably the most awe inspiring moment of the year for me. I could care less about the wrestling itself sometimes, as long as I could watch that video opening. Yea, man, that did it for me. Of course, when you had a guy like Dusty Rhodes who was talking directly to me as I sat in front of the television, that was the hook, line and sinker right there.
You said, or I read on your website, that when you were in OVW you were offered a spot in the Spirit Squad but turned it down. What led to you saying no to that?
Well, I was given a choice. Vince McMahon gave me a choice. Johnny Ace pulled me aside into Vince McMahon’s office and they said “This is an opportunity. It’s up to you if you want to do it or not.” Number 1: I don’t think that you do anything for Vince McMahon if you’re going to be uncomfortable or if you’re not going to commit fully to it. So, it was something that I didn’t think I could commit fully to; it was something that I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing.
One thing about Vince is that he knows if you’re uncomfortable doing something that he’s asked you to do. The worst thing for me at the time would have been to try to do it for the sake of doing it and not be able to deliver as well as those five guys that were part of the Spirit Squad did. If I had have done that and not been able to deliver and meet the expectations of Vince McMahon given that it was his genius that came up with that – not a writer, it was his personal idea – so I wasn’t going to go out there and jeopardise myself at that time. Vince said “If you don’t feel like it, and you don’t think it works for you, that’s fine. Go down (to OVW), we’ll put you back and we’ll find something else for you. We’ll bring you back up at a later date.” After I did a little soul searching and spoke to Paul Heyman and Danny Davis in OVW, and got their advice on it, I followed my heart. And I think I did the right thing and Vince respected me for that.
Your first big break on WWE came with Sylvester (Terkay) in ECW, but you’re probably more well known for heading up ‘The New Breed’ to feud against the ECW Originals. How did it come about that you were the leader of the group, so to speak?
Well, that was, again, a Vince McMahon call – with a little Dusty thrown in, I believe – moreso because it was different; it was ‘The New Breed’. If you think about it, you’ve got Elijah Burke out there being the leader and the mouthpiece of this group, which was something new in itself, so I just think he took on board that I had the gift of the gab – maybe could say, the charisma – and the on-screen presentation and how I carried myself. And, I would like to think that I had enough heat at the time to pull it off, so I think that’s why I was put in that position.
You have performed on a couple of WrestleManias, most notably WM 23. How different did you find it as a wrestler or performer from performing in the likes of ECW and OVW to then going in front of a reported 80,000?
That was pretty amazing. It was awe-inspiring; it was breath-taking; not moreso that fact of the difference of arenas – 80,000 versus 500 people! (laughs) – but the fact that as a kid I would have never imagined that I would have been on the second largest – crowd wise – attended WrestleMania to date I believe, right behind the Pontiac Silverdome. To be out there and to be a part of such an amazing card, to witness that Batista/Undertaker match, and the Shawn Michaels/John Cena match, and to be a part of that versus the ECW Originals, it was something that truly dreams are made of. I would have never thought in a million years that I would have had that opportunity to, when so many guys that have come before me and after me who live for that very moment and not a lot of them get the chance to. It was definitely breath-taking. I don’t know if you go back and watch that match – you can see me just looking away as I stand on the apron because I decided to just take it all in. I looked all the way around and said “Wow, I’m here!” it was awesome.
You had, I believe – almost taking this to the other extreme - you had Chris Benoit’s last TV match at the Smackdown tapings before Night of Champions in 2007. Just how big a shock was it to the locker room on the night of the PPV as everything was unfolding?
I don’t know about the shock to the locker room at the time, because I don’t think anyone knew at the time at Night Of Champions. We all found out at Raw in Texas about Benoit the night following Night Of Champions. I did not attend Night Of Champions because I was injured following the match with Benoit on ECW. I wanted to go to Night Of Champions, but I was informed to stay at home because it would be best for me to rest up. Shock-wise it shocked everyone, obviously, but I won’t speak for everyone, I’ll only speak for myself. I was pretty much shocked – tears fell – bewildered, if you will. It was just……following that Tuesday night matchup with me and Benoit I received a call from Benoit on the Wednesday. I received a call from Benoit on the Thursday checking on little, old me. Apparently from Friday to, whenever they say, this bizarre chain of events unfolded, so you know it was shocking to say the least.
After your release from WWE you were then signed by TNA, where you had The Black Pope, D’Angelo Dinero character. Where did that come from?
The Pope character came from me, obviously. It was something that I’d wanted to do up in WWE. I’m sitting back, and after a while (in WWE) things were going a bit differently as far as character progression and direction, so you sit back and may “Maybe it’s time for a character change.” I presented the idea to some of the writers, and gave it to Vince. I spoke to Vince about it and Vince liked it and it was something that we were working on, that I could give it a try, but I don’t think I had enough backing with the character at the time – it was just like a little side project.
You had several top level moments in TNA – whether it was challenging AJ for the title, being aligned with Nash/Sting and, most recently, teaming with Devon. What stood out for you the most?
What was my greatest moment? Oh, man…………(pause) I’ll give you my top three. I would say, honestly, the stuff with AJ at Lockdown is my top moment in TNA, as well as teaming with The Wolfpac at Bound For Glory. That was another highlight of my tenure of TNA. Equally, at some point, any dealings whether it was me running out to the ring with Hulk Hogan or being beat up and getting my hands on Ric Flair or having a verbal altercation with RIc Flair on the microphone – that was a dream come true, too. Those are definitely some highlights. Stealing Devon’s boys? That was alright. Stealing his wife was better!
Your contract expired on January 1st this year. Was it allowed to run out, by either TNA or did you run it out? Or was it one of the oversights that Bruce Pritchard apparently had in relation to contracts that he just didn’t get round to it?
I don’t know if it was an oversight or whatnot, but I will say when it was time for contract negotiations to go forward I personally hit up Dixie Carter and said thank you and that was it. I thanked her for her time and said I appreciate it and said “Thanks but no thanks.” Maybe six or seven days later I got a call from Nashville telling me what I basically already basically knew. I don’t know if I could say that it was amicable because I was the first person to say that I’m done with TNA, but at the same time if they wanted me they would have met Pope and fought a little harder to keep me. You can take that for what it is.
What do you think it would take for TNA to become a more viable alternative to WWE?
When everybody says “viable alternative” you have to understand that to be an alternative does not mean that you have to be number one. To be an alternative does not mean that you have to be number two! Hell, OVW is an alternative and they’re getting 3.5 million, at least, on the ION channel, which is a Christian station! It’s not about being number one, it’s not about worldwide viewers or a worldwide phenomenon; it’s about being an alternative.
I think we all know that at some point during TNA's ten, almost eleven year existence, they became an alternative. But when you are an alternative, your format, your storylines, offer an alternative view than what the other company does. And when things start to shift to where your company is looking like the number one company, or vice versa, than what’s the alternative? (laughs) It’s kind of like watching WWF Monday Night Raw and there’s Rick Rude and flip to Monday Nitro and there’s Rick Rude! Where’s the alternative?
Would you consider returning to WWE if the opportunity arose?
I don’t see why you shouldn’t see me there in the future. Absolutely.
I appreciate that the answer to the next question may very well be no, in which case that’s fine, but may I ask you about…….
(shouts) No! (laughs) Go ahead man.
May I ask you about the comments that went around from CM Punk about you last year?
Sure. I can go ahead and answer that for you. It’s real simple. When you are in the position that CM Punk is currently in, what can’t you say that is going to generate interest, generate anarchy? The word I’m looking for is create controversy. Whether he meant it? I don’t know, but when you go back – and all the fans that hit me up, and maybe yourself – when you go back and watch our matches we may have had one or two hiccups here and there, because we did all our stuff on the fly for the most part. But to say the comments that were said? I don’t know. It’s not any sweat off my back, because our matches spoke for themselves.
One match that stands out for me, besides the Unforgiven match, was the 2 out 3 falls match in ECW where at the last second we’re told “Hey, Marcus Cor Von isn’t showing up. You’re doing a 2 out of 3 match.” and we go out there and we call it on the fly. I wouldn’t read too much into it – I think it’s Punk being Punk. That’s what he does!
Obviously, as you say, you hope to have ten more years in the business. You’re still relatively young – what do you think is next for you?
Realistically, I would like to go back home where I started at – and that’s WWE. I would like to contribute to there and I would say then in five more years after that……I would just like go back home, basically, and finish there, yea. That’s the realistic view on that and like I say there’s no reason why you or anyone else shouldn’t expect to see Pope back in WWE.
What advice would you give anyone getting into the business nowadays?
The same things I tell anyone that hits me up on Facebook or at theelijahexpress.com to read my messages, or Twitter @DaBlackPope when they hit me up – I tell them to do some research. Everybody and their grandmother have their own little wrestling schools. (laughs) There was a guy here in Jacksonville that had a ring set up in his back yard of his single trailer that his mom owned and he lived with her – and by gosh she’s eighty something years old and he has the nerve to say she’s the commissioner! (laughs) There’s something! I’m saying, what the hell is going on around here? You’ve got people around here training in mom’s back yard; you can’t sit on mom’s table – mom comes out mad because you just sat on her table!
The point is – do some research! Anybody can say they’re a promoter, anybody can run a show. But if you want to make it into the big time, if you want to make it to where you’ve seen some of your heroes and idols – or anyone who has made it, basically – then you go through the necessary steps to ensure that the money that you pay – because you will have to pay them some money – is being used accordingly and that the people that you are going to be trained by have produced someone at some point from their school, and has more of them to come. (That they’ve had) some sort of success. That’s pretty much what I tell people all the time. If your school or your guy hasn’t trained anyone that’s went on to any sort of success then you might want to look somewhere else. I always tell them – OVW is still the premier training ground. Obviously FCW, down in WWE’s developmental territory. Those are places that you would want to go, but if you can’t afford the money or you can’t relocate then find a place in your neck of the woods that’s nearby and don’t give up. Go for it, but have a back-up plan. Again, as Pope finished, and got, his degree in criminal justice – have a back-up plan!
One final question, just off the wrestling tangent. I have seen on your website about your charity work and so on. Was it your background in what happened to you when you were growing up that led you to get involved in that and how do you hope that it will develop?
Well, with The Love-Alive Charity – which we referred to at the time as P.I.M.P. movement, Positively Influence Many People –that name came about with everybody chanting “Pope is pimpin’.” For me to get that off the ground, I always said to people that no-one ever asked The Pope what does “pimpin’” mean. Pope’s biggest fans besides middle-aged guys and teenagers were kids – and of course, the ladies as well! But kids were a big part of The Pope’s make up as far as his ‘congregation’ were concerned, so I wanted them to know that P.I.M.P when they say “Pope is pimpin’” for Pope, that it meant ‘Positively Influence Many People’.
What I decided to do was…….it wasn’t just about me giving back, but growing up in Jacksonville and travelling all around the world seeing so many people that were without – have no food, have no clothes on their back or, as I saw the other day, a gentleman walking down the street with a dress on because that’s all he has! Or this one dude that I saw with his toes hanging out of his shoes – so I took off my shoes and gave them to him. It’s just being able to do something good and it’s probably moreso to help the individuals, to help the people, who are trying to donate 50c or $1 to The Love-Alive Charity. Simply put, it’s not just about the homeless – it’s about those in need.
A young lady just hit me up on my Facebook account and her husband and her have been going through surgery and they’re trying to get help – they don’t have the money to cover the bills. It’d be really cool to be able to write $100 cheque. It won’t pay all of their bills, but a $100 cheque will say “Here. This is from The Love-Alive Charity. Hopefully this will help you out.”
It’s like we did in one of our first events where we fed over 300 homeless people not cold cuts, not grape juice and berries but Burger King. We were putting Burger King in these people’s mouths, and you can go to my YouTube channel – PopeTV4U – you can go there and you can witness that. It’s things like that that brought The Love-Alive Charity forward. We’re still in the process of getting the name legitimized. It’s such a long process. We’re going through the legal hoops to get that name certified and trademarked and once we get all that done we’ll continue on and start our second phase of The Love-Alive Charity and hopefully we’ll be doing a lot more and you’ll be hearing more about that soon.
Just before I go, if your fans are looking to keep in contact with you and see what you’re up to, what’s the best way?
Well, as a lot of them already know – and it’s probably a fault of mine that I kept it up on Facebook – is my phone number! 904-303-4994. Don’t be up for me answering all the time – don’t expect me to if I don’t know who you are! (laughs) But I do have the phone, I do answer it, and I do put a word of the day on there – just an inspirational message when they call that they are encouraged to listen to. Or they can go to PopeTV4U to follow some of Pope in his YouTube videos as well as facebook.com/elijahburke, facebook.com/dablackpope, as well as on Twitter @DaBlackPope. Also don’t forget theelijahexpress.com is always updated with Pope’s current schedule. I’ve got a couple of shows coming up overseas – I got a little overseas tour in the UK coming up (in October) which should be interesting, as well as a show in a week and a half in Owensboro, Kentucky. It’s called Uprising. I’ve got a lot of ways for the congregation to remain informed!