After 'Rotten' past, he returns to center stage

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The scars on Brian Knighton's right arm and forehead are a permanent reminder of the "hard-core" professional wrestling matches he has participated in during the past 17 years.

Beneath the surface, the Fells Point native carries emotional scars that cut deeper than any flesh wounds, the result of a self-destructive lifestyle that has claimed the lives of several peers.

Having spent half his life spilling his blood for little money in bingo halls and high school gymnasiums on the independent wrestling circuit under the name Axl Rotten, Knighton knows all too well about the unforgiving, cutthroat nature of the industry.

But instead of being bitter, Knighton still has a passion for the only job he has ever wanted. And rather than being another casualty of the business, Knighton not only has survived, but he is about to perform on his biggest stage yet - on a pay-per-view event produced by World Wrestling Entertainment, the standard-bearer in pro wrestling.

The show, titled One Night Stand, takes place tonight at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York and reunites wrestlers such as Knighton who had worked for the now-defunct Extreme Championship Wrestling, an organization that began with a cult following and went on to become a catalyst for the pro wrestling boom of the late 1990s.

The opportunity to perform on a WWE show, even for just one night, came as a shock to Knighton, 34, who had long since abandoned any notion of working for the company that made household names of Hulk Hogan, The Rock and "Stone Cold" Steve Austin.

Perhaps an even greater shock to those familiar with Knighton is the fact that he is still alive.

Known for the extremes he would go to in the ring, including mutilating himself in matches involving barbed wire and broken glass, Knighton also had a reputation for going to extremes away from the ring. He described his ECW days as a nonstop party filled with sex and drugs, but hedonistic fun eventually gave way to drug addiction and depression.

Abusing various prescription drugs, as well as heroin, cocaine and alcohol, Knighton seemed destined to join a growing list of pro wrestlers who died young.

After burning bridges both in wrestling and in his personal life over a four-year span and hitting bottom, Knighton finally confronted his problems. He says he has been clean and sober for the past year.

"I always hated getting in the ring before a show and announcing to the crowd that a wrestler had died and asking for a moment of silence for a 10-bell salute," he said. "In my career, I must have done that 10 times. I'm so glad that no one's going to have to do that for me."

Knighton, who stands 5 feet 11 and weighs 320 pounds, sports a blond Mohawk and has multiple tattoos and piercings, said he began watching wrestling on television when he was 4 and quickly realized he wanted to be a wrestler when he grew up.

He dropped out of Southern High School in the 11th grade to follow his dream.

Knighton learned the ropes from a couple of independent wrestlers at a boxing gym on North Avenue, and by the time he was 17, he was wrestling regularly at small venues on the East Coast and in the South. He worked during the week at a video store on Fleet and Broadway and wrestled on weekends.

Performing as Axl Rotten, Knighton quickly became the top star on the Maryland independent wrestling scene. One of his opponents and friends in those days was a wrestler named Cactus Jack, who would later become a huge WWE star and best-selling author under his real name of Mick Foley.

"[Knighton] was one of the guys that seemed to have what we refer to as 'it,' " recalled Foley, who also will appear on tonight's pay-per-view show. "He had an unusual-looking body ... [and] he had a very odd charisma to go along with a unique wrestling style and an ability at such a young age to talk very well and portray a character."

World Championship Wrestling, owned by Ted Turner and based in Atlanta, took notice of Knighton in 1991 and offered him a job. Used to wrestling in front of a couple hundred people, Knighton suddenly was performing at arenas - including the Baltimore Arena - and on national cable television.

Knighton's stay in WCW, however, lasted just a few months.

"Unfortunately, sometimes you only get one shot at the big time, and all it takes is a couple of influential people to decide you are not what they're looking for," said Foley, who worked for WCW while Knighton was there. "And I think that's what happened to Axl."

While working for WCW, Knighton made a favorable impression on Paul Heyman, who performed there under the name Paul E. Dangerously as a manager and commentator. A few years later, Heyman became the owner and matchmaker for ECW, and he recruited Knighton.

Knighton helped establish ECW - a small, Philadelphia-based company - as the anti-establishment organization and a stark contrast to the family entertainment produced by WWE and WCW at the time (both companies later followed ECW's lead and went in an edgier direction, which led to unprecedented success).

He did so by participating in matches in which a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire was used as a weapon, and others in which Knighton and his opponent taped up their hands, dipped them in glue and attached broken glass to them. The winner of the matches was predetermined, but the weapons - and the blood that flowed as a result of them - were anything but fake.

As Knighton's career leveled off in ECW, his personal life began to spiral out of control. After years of recreational drug use, he was developing a serious problem. The nightly poundings he was taking in the ring began taking a toll, and Knighton became addicted to painkillers.

"I was hooked on a muscle relaxer known as somas," he said. "I was mixing beer and pills, and everyone knows you're not supposed to do that. You were supposed to take like four somas a day, but I was taking about 40 a day. Toward the end it was upward of 100 a day. I would sleep for two or three days at a time.

"I found that I could never wake up, and then I was introduced to cocaine. So now I could take a handful of pills and I wasn't hurting and could stay awake."

Knighton eventually discovered the injectable painkiller Nubain, which had become popular in wrestling locker rooms, and OxyContin.

"The company doesn't care about anything other than the next show, and as a wrestler, you have to be able to perform because there's always somebody there to take your spot," he said.

Knighton said he later became deeply depressed after his grandmother, who had raised him and was still living with him at the time, died from lung cancer, and he turned to heroin. His drug use had gotten to the point that Heyman said he had no choice but to let him go "because I was afraid for him."

"Axl had two reputations," said Heyman, now a creative consultant with WWE. "One was as this guy who would work his [butt] off for you and do anything to entertain the crowd. Axl's second reputation, however, was that he was a liability because he had all these demons. The first reputation would have conquered all, but the demons tore him down, and people in this business just ran away from him."

With his wrestling career seemingly over and having alienated himself from most of his friends, Knighton said he didn't do much other than sit in his empty house and get high before he finally reached out for help about a year ago. He called his aunt and went to live with her in Virginia.

"The only way I could think of stopping this was by taking myself out of the situation," he said. "Everything you've heard about violent drug withdrawals is what I went through: the shaking, the pain, the sweating, the vomiting. But I figured if I was dumb enough to get myself into this, I was smart enough to get myself out of it. It took the help of my aunt, my mother and my cousins to be a support system for me. It's still a daily struggle."

After declaring himself clean and sober, Knighton gradually began getting steady work again on independent circuits on the East Coast and Midwest. With WWE's resuscitation of the ECW brand, Knighton said lately his phone "never stops ringing."

One call he never expected was from Tom Laughlin (aka Tommy Dreamer), a former colleague in ECW who is now working behind the scenes for WWE. Laughlin called on behalf of WWE to invite Knighton to be on tonight's ECW reunion show.

"I told him it meant a lot to me because I didn't think they would want me because of all the problems I had," Knighton said. "Tommy said, 'I heard about everything, but I also heard you're doing great now. It wouldn't be an ECW show without Axl Rotten.' "

Knighton, who said he has been looking into going to broadcasting school, said he is satisfied with his standing in wrestling and has never regretted participating in the barbaric matches that have left his body scarred.

"If my place in wrestling history is as one of the most brutal, outrageous guys, so be it," he said. "At least I have a place in wrestling history. My place in wrestling history won't be 'former ECW wrestler Axl Rotten overdoses from heroin.' "

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