Montel Vontavious Porter – MVP – has been living up to his moniker as of late in World Wrestling Entertainment. The United States champion’s feud with Chris Benoit has been one of the highlights of WWE broadcasts and has helped MVP gain momentum as a character.
However, the real-life story of MVP, who was born Hassan Assad, is even more compelling than most wrestling story lines. A former gang member, the Florida native was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1991 for armed robbery and kidnapping. While incarcerated, one of his corrections officers who had been moonlighting as an independent wrestler offered to train him to be a wrestler when he got out of prison.
After serving about half his sentence, he was released in 1999 and embarked on a wrestling career. He spent several years on the independent circuit before being signed to a developmental contract by WWE, and he made his television debut as MVP on Smackdown last summer.
I spoke with MVP, 33, this morning in a telephone interview:
Q: Do you think you have turned a corner in WWE after working with Chris Benoit the past few months?
A: No question. When you step in the ring with Chris Benoit, you’re either going to succeed or fail. And if you fail, you’re going to fail miserably, because he will hand you your [butt]. I’ve been fortunate enough to be in with one of the best in the world, and working with him has only made me better. At every turn I’ve had an opportunity to step my game up, because Chris Benoit is inarguably one of the top 10 of all time. So, for me, it has been a privilege and it’s an accelerated learning program.
Q: Is it fair to say that he has taken you under his wing and taken an interest in your development?
A: Oh, absolutely. Chris Benoit has been instrumental in that. He’s always been one of my favorite wrestlers. To have the opportunity to know him and to become friends, and for him to recognize my passion and my desire and to want to help hone that and help me to become somebody that hopefully can lead the next generation of superstars is an honor. I can’t even verbalize how spectacular that is for me.
Q: It has been written by me and others that the one thing that seems to be holding you back is your ring attire. Do you have any thoughts on that?
A: I don’t see where it’s holding me back. If you look at world-class runners, you see what they wear. Champion power lifters, ice skaters, Lance Armstrong when he’s on that bike – what is he wearing? NFL players, underneath their pads, what are they wearing? They’re wearing some sort of Under Armour dry-fit technology. That’s what I wear. For people to criticize what I’m wearing – if you look at most of my opponents, these guys are wearing bikini briefs and tights, which is just another way of saying pantyhose.
Q: Do you see your real-life past ever becoming incorporated into your character’s story line?
A: I think it would have to because I have a deep-seeded interest in using my past to help others with a similar background. If you look at a lot of kids from the inner city, there’s this overwhelming sense of hopelessness and despair, and I dealt with that first hand. I made some bad decisions that cost me a sizable chunk of my life, and I’d like to be able to use my experience to show them that there is hope and there’s a way out of that, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be crime or drugs. I’d like to be a role model to show them, hey, I came from where you came from, I dealt with things you dealt with and I made the bad decisions that you don’t have to make – there are other ways. I think in order to do that, at some point we’d have to address it.
Q: What do you think you’d be doing if that corrections officer had never discussed wrestling with you?
A: There is a realistic possibility that I would be back in prison or dead. I’ve got family that care about me and I had people that were there to help me out when I was released, but it was my interest and passion for professional wrestling that made a difference. When I got out and started training, I threw myself wholeheartedly into wrestling. It’s what I focused every day on, every waking moment. Before I went to sleep, I was watching tapes. When I woke up in the morning, I was thinking about my training day. I can say that professional wrestling has rescued me from a possible lifetime in prison or an early death. In our society, if an individual commits a crime, he or she is sent to prison and they’re supposed to repay their debt to society by serving their time. But, more and more, our institutions are taking away educational programs; they’re taking away the Pell Grants so that people can take college courses. They’re more into warehousing and less into rehabilitating. You take a guy like myself that did almost 10 years in prison. Now you release them into society, and most apartment complexes won’t rent to someone with a felony background, and lots of places won’t hire a convicted felon. So, what is this person to do? Can’t get a job. Can’t live anywhere. And, technically, he or she was supposed to have paid their debt to society.
Q: Were you a wrestling fan growing up?
A: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I grew up in Florida, and my uncle used to work at the Miami Beach Convention Center in concessions. So my mom would take me in the back door, and I will never, ever forget seeing Dusty Rhodes bleeding all over the place. I was 4 years old, maybe, and I remember loving it – just absolutely thrilled – but looking over at my mom cheering and wondering, “Man, she’s allowing me to watch this?” Twenty-four years later, I had the privilege of being on the same card with both Dusty Rhodes and Terry Funk, two individuals that I saw at one of my first shows. We took a picture together, and now Dusty Rhodes has become one of the individuals who give me lots of insight and suggestions. He’s one of the many that have taken a personal interest in me and I’m very grateful to him for that.
Q: You worked on the independent circuit for about six years. Did you ever begin to doubt that you would make it to WWE?
A: I would love to sit here and tell you no, but, sure, there were times when I would see guys get signed and I would be like, “Man, why not me?” There were times when I’d be on the road, traveling from Point A to Point B for next to no money, putting my time in, and I had my doubts. But I believed in my heart and soul that if I was ever given the opportunity, I’d be able to score a touchdown. And I told [WWE senior vice president of talent relations] John Laurinaitis that one day in one of the dark matches that I was booked. I said, “Hey, just tell me what you need from me and I’ll do everything in my power to make that happen. If you give me an opportunity and I drop the ball, than it’s on me, and I can live the rest of my life knowing that I had a shot and I blew it. But at least give me the shot.” I was given the shot, and, well, I think I’m doing all right.
Q: What did John Laurinaitis tell you that you needed to do to make it in WWE?
A: His exact words were: “We like you. We’ve got nothing for you. Go come up with a personality that we can use, something we don’t already have, and we can talk.” I was put off by that at first. I thought, “Man, you could sign me and send me to OVW for developmental and I could come up with it there.” I kind of felt like I was being blown off. I went and sulked about it for a little while, and I went to work on South Beach at the high-end nightclubs I used to work security at. And during that time, I had to deal with these self-absorbed, overpaid athletes who would come up and go, “Hey, do you know who I am?” and expect the world. And bam! – MVP was born. I called John Laurinaitis and told him I had an idea, told him about MVP. He told me to put it on paper, and I did and I sent it to him. He called me back and said let’s go.
Q: Any final comments before we wrap things up?
A: I just want to make sure that I mention Saturday Night’s Main Event on NBC at 11:30. Myself, the United States heavyweight champion, teams up with Edge, the world heavyweight champion, against Batista and Chris Benoit. I think that will be some interesting viewing because you’ve got the champs, the winners, the haves, against the chumps, the losers, the have-nots. And I think they might be a little upset that they don’t have their titles anymore, so that’s definitely going to be some good viewing. And then this Sunday, you’ve got One Night Stand [on pay-per-view]. It’s going to be a night of extremes. You’re going to have a steel cage match; you’re going to have tables; you’re going to have chairs; you’re going to have chaos. So that’s mandatory viewing for any wrestling fan.
Q: You don’t have a match at One Night Stand, correct?
A: Tables are for putting things on, not putting MVP through, and if I can avoid a steel cage match and ladders and chairs, I will. It seems at this point that I’ve evaded having to go through a night of extremes, but you never know – I might show up. There’s no telling, because I’m the champ and I call the shots. I can do whatever I want to do.