Source: Greg Phillips of the Dothan Eagle
“The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero is one of several stars from Total Nonstop Action Wrestling who will perform at the Ozark Civic Center Thursday night.
Dinero, whose real name is Elijah Burke, spent three years on the road with World Wrestling Entertainment before signing with TNA last year.
Recently, he’s become a featured star on TNA’s weekly TV show, “iMPACT,“ which airs every Monday at 8 p.m. Central on Spike.
The Dothan Eagle spoke with Dinero late Wednesday afternoon, discussing the Ozark show, TNA’s growth, his time in WWE and what professional wrestling must do as a business to reach the heights it once attained.
Dothan Eagle: TNA Wrestling has made some headlines in recent months, and “TNA iMPACT” just moved from Thursday nights to Monday nights, competing head-to-head with World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship program, “Monday Night Raw.” How has TNA grown since you joined last year, and where does it go from here?
“The Pope” D’Angelo Dinero: TNA is going on eight years, going strong. We’ve got great leadership in (TNA President) Dixie Carter, who’s a wise businesswoman. We brought in Hulk Hogan to get TNA’s name out there more. Since I’ve joined, you’ve seen Hulk Hogan come aboard along with other great names like Eric Bischoff, Jeff Hardy, Rob Van Dam, “Nature Boy” Ric Flair. That happened, which brought more publicity, and now we’ve moved from Thursday to Monday nights on Spike. In the next year or two, I can see TNA becoming even more dominant in the fans’ eyes as the wrestling promotion to watch.
Eagle: You’ll be performing live in Ozark Thursday night. What is different about live events as opposed to what we see on television?
Pope: A live event as opposed to TV is more personal. We have a lot more freedom to make it more of an event. We’re out in the crowd signing autographs before the show. We’re trying to make it the best experience that fans can receive up close and personal. If that means fan taking his shoe off and giving it to Pope to sign, that’s what Pope will do. You can’t go anywhere else and have a group of guys you cheer for, watch them wrestle, then to top it all off, everybody comes out for the ultimate autograph session after the show. That’s only in TNA.
Eagle: You spent a few years with WWE. How do you compare your experience there with your experience so far in TNA?
Pope: TNA is a family environment. The same environment that I spoke of earlier that we like to give to fans at a live event, that’s how we are, period. Yes, we all want to be champions and make money, but we all support one another’s efforts in doing so. You’re not gonna find that in the giant known as WWE. It’s too much of a warzone, if you will, among the guys there. If you walk in the TNA locker room and the WWE locker room, in TNA everyone is smiling and happy. It’s a great day to come to work. We have guys that have been wrestling 20, 30 years, guys who have been on top of the business, but everyone is on same page and treats everyone with respect. You don’t get talked down to.
Eagle: A decade ago, wrestling was extremely popular and had hit the mainstream. A lot of fans from that era no longer pay attention to the shows, and the mainstream exposure of the industry has drastically reduced. What can make pro wrestling mainstream again?
Pope: If you’re a wrestling historian, you know the business has always gone up and down in cycles. It had its boom period in the ‘80s with Hogan and the (Ultimate) Warrior, guys like that and the Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection, then it goes down, then it came back up with Hogan and the nWo. There’s that name again, Hulk Hogan. Then new stars were born with the Rock and (Steve) Austin and those guys. We’re still in that cycle where we’re down again, and that leaves us with nowhere to go but up as far as being red-hot. The business needs to keep trucking along and take new, unique characters, a guy like the Pope, and put them out there so people will say, “This is cool again, this is hip again,” and get the casual viewers back. Get them to join with the Pope’s congregation.
Eagle: Speaking of unique characters, yours manages to stand out every Monday night. How did you develop the Pope character?
Pope: Those that are the most successful characters are just a tuned-up, amped-up version of the individual itself. Pope is Elijah, Elijah is pope. There’s not much of a difference. You’re talking to a church boy, someone who grew up in the church. Pope was indeed just me wanting to take this vision of myself into the wrestling world. I tried to get people to boo me, and people said there’s something about me they couldn’t boo. TNA wanted to bring me in as Elijah Burke. But what they didn’t know is I wanted to do this character in WWE when I was on sideline. With (WWE), it normally has to be their idea or, if it’s not their idea, they have to put their own spin on it at the E. When I came into TNA, my first match at Hard Justice (a pay-per-view event), I showed up as the Pope. They had no idea what Pope was gonna be like, but they trusted it. After they saw it that night, they knew it was money.
Eagle: That originality helps differentiate your character from others. A lot of fans feel that wrestling has been populated with similar characters in recent years. How important is it to have a unique character?
Pope: It is very, very important. And it’s very important to play to your strengths. Like I said earlier, you’re talking to someone who grew up in the church, someone who grew up in front of people, around people. I was in law enforcement for a few years, and I had to stand out in front of big crowds, Boys and Girls clubs, inmates and encouragement groups to help people with their issues, to help them with their problems by talking to them. Entertaining is my strength. I can go in the ring, now. Don’t get it twisted. I can go in the ring and get it done, but more importantly than just that, my strength is the entertaining of the people, which I call my congregation. What’s so unique with it is I like to leave it to the imagination of the fans. They hear the name Pope, they think something religious, but it isn’t about hellfire and religion, it’s a play off words. They see a fine, voluptuous woman on screen and see Pope hitting on the women, so they’re like, “Hey, this guy’s a pimp.” But I want to leave this to the imagination of the fans. Is he a religious leader? Is he a pimp? Something else? If they’re left asking these questions, in their world, guess who’s in charge of what the Pope is? They are.
Eagle: You had a chance to perform at WrestleMania. Even though it’s the competition, with that show coming up, what are your favorite WrestleMania memories from growing up and watching the shows?
Pope: I did two WrestleManias, and of course I had the honor and privilege to do so. But as far as having a lot of memories from it, coming up, I wasn’t a WWF fan, I was an NWA (National Wrestling Alliance) fan and a World Class Championship Wrestling fan. I’m from Florida. My fondest memories are of Flair and “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, the days of the Horsemen and Sting. When it came to the biggest WrestleMania shows, which of course we all watched, it’s something where you really cherish those days. Wrestling is what it is right now, and it’s good, but for us and our childhood memories, it’s great. Hogan and Warrior (at WrestleMania VI) stands out. It was the first time you had, like, the ultimate good vs. the ultimate good. It was like Superman vs. Batman. The WWF at that time was like a comic book come to life, and that match kind of represented that.
Eagle: You mentioned growing up an NWA fan. Given that fact, what does it mean to you to be working alongside some of your childhood heroes, like Ric Flair…
Pope: And Sting.
Eagle: Right. What does that opportunity mean to you?
Pope: You have no idea. It’s the biggest honor. I can only hope some of my fellow brethren in TNA have the same respect and admiration and ability to know we have history, these great legends who we can learn from and grow from in the process. I’ve had a chance to work with Flair, which has just been thrilling. I mean, really thrilling. I’ve told many people before I got to TNA, they’d ask if I could have dinner with three people, who would it be? I always said Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton and Sting. I haven’t met the Big Pope upstairs, but I’ve had some encounters, and I don’t want to see him again until I can’t see no more [laughing]. My immediate goal is to get Sting in the ring before he exits for good. This is the last year. Pope’s been known to give some prophetic advice, and I can tell you this year is the last year for Sting. Pope wants to get him in the ring before he retires for good. I know in this business, when retirements happen, it’s not set in stone, but when Sting retires, I truly believe it’ll be for good.
Eagle: You’ve been involved in a high-profile feud with TNA World Champion AJ Styles in recent months. Talk about that experience and what it means for your career.
Pope: Lockdown, Lockdown, Lockdown. St. Louis, Mo., April 18, the Pope vs. AJ Styles, main event inside the steel cage. Pope gets his shot at realizing his dream of being the TNA world champion. I’m going in there against someone who has done it all in this business. This man is phenomenal, I give him that. Hopefully I get my hands on him live in Ozark. If I can get my hands on him there, I’ll be able to give Pope’s congregation a preview of Lockdown. There’ll be some high times, some fun times tomorrow night. We’re gonna give you an experience.
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Source: Greg Phillips of the Dothan Eagle