Pete Gasparino: The unlikely journey from fan to the 'Mean Street Posse'

Pete Gasparino, shown here during his time at Memphis Championship Wrestling, came into the WWE with no wrestling training as part of Shane McMahon's "Mean Street Posse" and turned it into a memorable three-plus year run with the company. Courtesy of Pete Gasparino / Skyhorse Publishing

At the peak of the Attitude Era, Shane McMahon brought a few of his buddies in off the street to act as his muscle. The "Mean Street Posse", as they would come to be known, were only meant to last for a few weeks, but they'd remain under contract for the next three years.

Their unusual and incredible journey has been documented by Pete Gasparino, one-third of the Mean Street Posse known as "Pete Gas", in a new book entitled "Looking at The Lights: My Path from Fan to a Wrestling Heel."

Between backing into the business, growing up with Shane McMahon, and training that would ultimately take him to Memphis and Puerto Rico, Gasparino highlights all of the most interesting (and devastating) moments of his unlikely career. He recently spoke to ESPN.com at length about some of the more poignant memories he has of his time in the business.

ESPN.com: You came into the WWE with the Mean Street Posse in 1999, but that wasn't the first time you had aspirations of trying to get into the wrestling business. Can you talk about being a wrestling fan growing up, and then asking Shane about how you might get into the business around 1992?

Pete Gasparino: Growing up, I was a wrestling fan before I ever met the McMahon family. I used to remember trying to stay awake when I was nine years old -- channel 9 at 11 o'clock would have wrestling on. I used to get to watch this big blonde guy, this was before Hulk Hogan became Hulkamania and all that, and I remember watching him in matches and thought he was so cool. He was so big and so dominant. I always had a love for it.

Then when I get to high school, I end up playing football with Shane McMahon. Obviously the wrestling was there, but now it's even more of a love for it, because it's one of your good friend's family businesses. Of course from them on, I wouldn't miss anything. Anything that was on television, I was all over it. I remember going to the McMahon's house for pay per views, and I remember we watched Survivor Series one time over at his house.

As time went on, and I was finally out of college, looking for something to do, some direction in my life, I always knew that there's something special to me about wrestling. So I went to Shane and asked him what he thought about me getting into the business. At the time, I don't know if he said it to me like this because he didn't want to feel obligated to have to say no to his friend or whatever, but he basically talked me out of going for it.

He was in his office, and I just asked him. I said, do you know how do I get involved, how do I start wrestling? He said, oh you don't want to do this. He said, "You'll have to go to Memphis, Tennessee and you may end up working for $25 a day if you're lucky, and no job is going to hire you. Who's going to allow their employee to leave because at 2 o'clock to drive to some town in the Mid-South and set up the ring, wait and do the whole show, the whole match, if you even get in in the beginning, and then eventually then you got to tear the ring down. And by the time you get home, it's 2 o'clock in the morning and you're exhausted. You're going to go through all the money in your bank account," (which wasn't much).

I remember leaving his office being pretty bummed out, because it was something I always thought I wanted to do.

You played college football for the University of Connecticut, and you were always a pretty athletic guy. We fast forward a few years, and we have that moment where you spending some time at Titan Towers and then Shane calls you into his office to ask you to do him a favor and appear on TV with him. That seems like a pretty ridiculous jump to make, from your everyday life to basically being a part of all that craziness for WrestleMania. What was that period of your life like for you?

PG: When Shane called us into his office, the way he put it to us, my partner Rodney and I, was hey, can you guys do us a favor? Can you do me a favor? We were always on a need to know basis with Shane. Kayfabe, I don't know if you're familiar with that term, but Shane lives that. He lives his life by it. Like I said, we were always on a need to know basis, and we never knew what was going to become of this. It really was only supposed to last a couple of weeks. He had asked us to film some vignettes. He called us in his office on a Friday. On Sunday, he wanted us to dress preppy and go down to the studio and meet with a gentleman by the name of Chris Chambers, who's still with the company. He showed us a script that the writers had written for us, and he tore it up, and he basically said, "F that, I want you guys to talk about stories about when we were kids getting in fights, getting in trouble, running from the cops, doing all the things that we used to do. They're going to cut it up, and you're going to be on Monday Night Raw."

We had fun with it... but actually, we were nervous as hell, so we drank a twelve pack of beer each at 8 o'clock in the morning on that Sunday, showed up at Titan Tower at 10 o'clock. We did those vignettes and sure enough, the following night started a series of vignettes that they would show for a good three or four weeks prior to WrestleMania.

What was that first time actually being out in front of that live audience like, having been somebody who had been a fan for so long, and someone who had had these aspirations?

PG: I remember the first time going out there, and walking down the ramp and heading to the ring. I remember saying to myself, don't trip walking down the ramp and don't fall walking through the ropes. It probably would have made the character even funnier, but it was kind of intimidating. It was one of those things where, I remember this from playing sports, I remember I was nervous before every game I ever played, and I always think that's ... I've read things or I've seen and heard things about people saying it's really healthy to be nervous before something, so anytime I ever did something I was nervous for, once I got out there it was good.

The key to this whole thing was when we went out there that first time, and for a while, we had zero training. The reason why the book is unique is because it tells the story of how Vince took two guys with no training, but we had athletic background, and put us in the ring with the best in the business, and said, don't kill yourselves and make sure you put these guys over. We were able to parlay something that was only supposed to last a few weeks into three years.

For most of that first early run, it was mostly just you guys getting beat up with doing some training in your off time. What was it like when you were finally offered contracts, to walk into the office and leave your previously life behind?

PG: The company that I was running an office for in Astoria, Queens, Lightnin Rentals, did work on a lot of movie sets. It was renting production equipment to movie companies and TV shows. Being the only guy doing the sales and cleaning the trailers, and doing all the things that went with it, for me not to be around, I know the company's, their patience, with me was running a little thin. They too thought this was only going to be a few weeks, so I know that they were starting to get a little frustrated with me, and I don't blame them. They had their own business to run, so it was just great timing that at the time ... I kind of feel like they were at wits end. Then the contract comes up, and I made life easier for them to be able to go out and find someone else to do that job.

[Getting the contract was] one of the best feelings I've ever had, I'll never forget it. Shane brought us into his office again, and handed us each these big envelopes. We didn't know what they were, and he tells us they're offering us three one year deals in this contract. I still have that contract to this day. I cherish it. I look at it every once in a while and remember what I once went through, because I remember getting it and then going into the parking lot at Titan Tower, which is the WWE building, and I remember just letting out a yell and being so happy, because here it is, it's a dream come true.

You went in with no wrestling training, but as you spent more time on TV, you ended up getting personalized training from Dr. Tom Prichard in Connecticut. How was that crash course for you?

PG: It was amazing, because there were no distractions. When we weren't doing television that week, it was all about just spending time in the weight room, and in the studio where they had a ring, and watching films. We'd wrestle and have it taped, and then we went back and watched it and went over what mistakes we made, what we did right and what we did wrong. Anyone that's watched the old show "Tough Enough", it's all these guys taking bumps and all these things that we had to learn to do too. We were doing it backwards, because guys that are in WWE already know how to do everything. We were in WWE, but we still had to learn as we went. It was constant training, but we were in this thing, full go. I just remember waking up, bouncing out of bed saying, "I wonder what I'm doing today", working and not caring about anything else but wrestling, and just loving it.

You had several major feuds, including one that, according to your book, was the highest rated wrestling segment in TV history. What was it like to work with a couple of legends in Pat Patterson and Gerald Brisco at that late stage in their careers?

PG: It's funny, because Pat was ... Both guys were older, and Pat didn't want us to have any offense, because Pat was worried, and he had every right to be worried, that we would hurt him by not doing something properly. Even as matches and weeks went on, he started to trust us a little bit more on things, but again, he still didn't really want us to do too much to him. But it was fun, we had a lot of good times and a lot of big laughs. It was great. Because even a month later, after our feud had ended, Shane faces Test in the 'love her or leave her match', and they call for a spot where Brisco and Patterson come down where we're about to go in the ring and get after Test, and Brisco and Patterson grab Rodney and I and start beating us and hit us over the head with street signs. The crowd literally just erupted at Summerslam, because they were so excited to see these guys beating us up again.

It was a chemistry thing, and it was an honor to be a part of it, because to be the highest rated segment with the group of guys that were in that locker room, you have The Rock and Stone Cold, and The Undertaker, Triple H, and we were the highest rated segment, which was a huge feather in our cap.

You talk about some of those names, and one of the most interesting things in your book, at least to me, was that, if not a struggle, the effort that you guys had to put in to become accepted because of the way that you came into the company. What was it like, even towards the end of your run, to feel as if you had actually earned that respect, and that all of the efforts that you had put in had been worth it?

PG: That was one of the biggest accomplishments we had. Sure, it's amazing to be on television and it's amazing all the perks that go with that, but when you earn the respect of your peers in the locker room, to me that was one of the biggest highlights of being in the business and my whole career there.

Still to this day, a lot of guys... Edge and Christian have a TV show, and they've invited me to do stuff in the first season, and now they're bringing me back for the second season. To get guys like Edge and JBL to do the forewords to the book, it really shows that I earned their respect over that time. That to me is worth a lot, because in the wrestling industry, all that business of that locker room, it's all about respect. If you don't have respect in the locker room, you're a dead man. It's important for wrestlers to have each other's respect.

At first, there were some guys that I questioned if we really had any respect from them. We didn't have that respect by a lot of guys, but then as time went on, and we were taking these beatings and going backstage afterwards and I always had a smile on my face. I was always happy, and said thank you and earned the respect of these guys, that was huge for us.

As we move on a little bit later into your career, things come full circle and you actually do get sent to Memphis. What were your adventures like, and who were some of the names we might recognize who were down there with you?

PG: I'd heard all these stories from Shane, just talking that whole territory down, and then here we are being shipped there, and it felt like we were going to be in a different world. It turned out to be much better than I had anticipated.

We got to work with Steven Regal, who to be honest with you, he's a master. He really is. A lot of people don't see what he has, but he really knows how to teach it, and he'll teach you how to be a babyface, or a heel as well as anyone. He was a great heel, and he taught me a lot in the ring during matches down there. We would have matches sometimes in front of maybe six people in Arkansas, and he and I would be in there. He could talk to you throughout the match, and tell you put your head up, do this, and direct you while you were doing it. We were getting reactions from those small crowds, and they say if you can get a reaction from six people, then you can get a reaction from 30,000 just as easy, if not easier. We just learned different philosophies of matches, and psychology, and when to do things, when not to do things.

I remember shortly after that, about three months into us being in Memphis, there was a group of guys that came from Shawn Michaels' Academy, his wrestling school. One of them was Daniel Bryan. I remember he looked so young, he was 19 years old and he looked like a little kid. He was a little kid, but I remember he packed a punch. He liked to work stiff. He liked to lay in the punch a little bit harder, and kick a little bit harder. It was good, because when you lay a kick in, you can react to it a lot more, because obviously you feel it, and it looked much more real than normal.

I remember reading that Shawn Michaels told him that he should always lay things in and make it look really stiff, and don't let anyone change you, and he didn't. Him, and Brian Kendrick, who is there now still with the company, Lance Cade, who passed away, all these guys worked real stiff and it taught us. These guys learned from one of the best in Shawn Michaels, and we're learning from Steven Regal. You get a little bit of flavor from everybody, and we're all learning off each other, and they're learning from our experiences up at WWE. When we come back, we're sharing with them, and it was a big team. We all worked together, which was great.

Eventually you win the heavyweight championship there, but then WWE's relationship with the territory falls apart. That leads you to moving to Puerto Rico...

PG: By the time I got sent to Puerto Rico, the Mean Street Posse was off television, and we were told to reinvent our characters. We were also told that they were going to eventually bring us back as the Mean Street Posse and then split us up, and we would all become singles guys

We were all looking for characters to reinvent ourselves, and then all of a sudden I get a call saying, Pete, we're going to send you to Puerto Rico at the end of the week. I basically had to pack everything up from Memphis and say my goodbyes, and then head on the Puerto Rico.

There I learned from Savio Vega and Dutch Mantell. It was just a different style of wrestling, and I wasn't quite sure why they were sending me there. I was confused, but I was like, is this a demotion? I didn't know what to think. I was there with D-Lo Brown and Chaz Warrington, who was known as Mosh from the Headbangers, so I felt a lot more comfortable knowing that those two guys were there. We worked together as a tag team there, and then I did a bunch of singles matches in Puerto Rico.

It was going well there for a while, but then it all came crashing down in a day, basically?

PG: For me, I was at a point in my career when I thought, okay, I got something going here, because I felt I was in the best shape of my life and I was definitely the best I could be as a wrestler at that point. Then I get a phone call from Rodney and Joey Abs on a Wednesday, and they said, we just got let go. I was just like, oh man. I talked to them and I was sorry for them, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking I'm next, because we came in as a group, we're going to leave as a group. Then, sure enough, the following day I got my phone call, and I remember it being very depressed, very sad, because when we were on television in the beginning, we didn't know what we were doing, and then now I finally know what I'm doing and I feel like I can compete and make money for me and the company, and now it's all being taken away.

There was really no place else to go at that point, there was no WCW, because Vince had bought it, no ECW, Vince had bought it. There was Japan, there was some indie stuff ...but all the stuff that I worked so hard for was pretty much dead and buried.

Once you get back to the States, is it just a matter of, okay, I need to find that next step, make sure I can support myself with a job, or do you continue to try to put feelers out and do what you can to try to hang on or get back into the wrestling business?

PG: I got calls from guys that I was wrestling with that I looked up to, they were telling me, don't quit, keep going, you've gotten to a certain point now, but again there was nowhere to go. Then Jeff Jarrett had contacted me, and he was putting a group together to go to Australia for a couple weeks and be home for about ten days and then go to Europe for two weeks. I was excited about doing that. I was committed to doing it, and again, 9/11 hit. The show was supposed to happen later that September, and I got the call saying, yeah, it's not happening, it's over.

It was time. At that point, it was like, okay, I don't want to go through all of the money I made, so it was time to go get a job back in the sales field.

There's a really cool postscript in the book where you talk about seeing Shane return to TV and then your experience down in Dallas. Could you just tell me a little bit about that reunion and that weekend, in terms of what it meant to you?

PG: Yeah. When I was watching TV and Shane had made a surprise reappearance on to WWE, I was just as surprised as everybody else. As soon as Vince told Shane that he had a match at WrestleMania and it was going to be against the Undertaker, I knew I wanted to go, but then once he said he was going to be in a Hell in the Cell match, I turned to my wife and I said, "We're going." She's like, why? "Because he's going to jump off that cell, and I want to be there."

I knew it from that moment, because Shane McMahon is an adrenaline junkie. I've always called him that ever since we were younger. No feat, nothing is too high, nothing is too scary. He always had this fearless thing about him. He'd try anything.

Sure enough, I called him the following day and we had a few laughs. I asked if there was any chance he could get me some tickets, because I'd love to come see you, and he was so honored that we would do that. He was able to get us tickets. We flew down, we had a great weekend, got to see him and a lot of old friends, which meant the world to me.

We sat in about the fourth or fifth row at WrestleMania, and I remember watching him climb up, knowing that he was going to do it, and sure enough, he climbed up. I remember him being on top of that cell, and I was nervous as heck. I remember my wife... I guess she looked over to me to see my reaction, and I had a real nervous look on my face, because I know that while he always seems to come out smelling like a rose, that little stunt was crazy. He's fortunate that he didn't get hurt and that's all I cared about, that he wasn't going to get himself in a wheelchair or anything like that.

I saw him later on that night. We went to the after party, and we waited for him as long as we could. There was no sign of him, so we left, but when we got back out to the hotel lobby, I saw him talking to Stone Cold Steve Austin and Ric Flair. I went over to him, and I said, "I'd hug you, but I think I'd feel like I'd break you." He was walking like the Tin Man, and he had a look on his face like he'd been better. He turned to me and he smiled, and he said, "Oh, lovely," so we had a little bit of a laugh. That's just Shane being Shane. He's just an amazing talent who just loves the business and would do anything for his family business.