“Cut my life into pieces, this is my last resort.”
Those are the opening lyrics to Papa Roach’s debut single Last Resort. For the Combat Zone Wrestling fanbase, it’s the anthem of the company’s ultraviolent icon, “Sick” Nick Mondo.
But for the man behind the word “SICK” written on his forehead, Matthew T. Burns—the Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo, Japan-living 35-year-old—it’s a reminder of a scarred past.
“It’s nothing I could just put in my playlist and have it blend in with other songs,” Burns said. “It stands alone. It does carry a lot of memories.”
Burns recalls the years of spending a Saturday night in South Philadelphia waiting for those lyrics to blare through Viking Hall (now 2300 Arena). It signaled his entrance, where Burns would walk through a sea of adoring fans—one of which would follow in the death-match legend’s footsteps years later—into the CZW ring, where he’d leave broken, bloodied, and battered.
More than a decade since hanging up his boots, Burns—now a filmmaker, editor, and actor—is working towards the 2016 release of his film “The Trade—” a cinematic look at Burns’ career and his emotions during those years.
“It’s essentially an attempt to answer the ‘why’ question behind the insanity,” Burns said of the film. “I’ve had more than a decade to think about that, so I feel like I’m ready to talk about it.”
One of those memories Burns had to recall for the film was his CZW Tournament of Death II roof spot during a 2/3 Light Tube Log Cabins semifinal match against ex-CZW owner John Zandig— a bump which Burns says he took around five months to recover from.
Whatever. It’ll be dangerous—just like everything else—and I’ll be fine.
Before going off a roof through all but two of the six tables lined with light tubes and stacked three-layers high, Burns had already knew he would be retiring from a four-and-a-half-year stint as a death-match competitor. Held above Zandig’s bloodied head, Burns knew of something that’d make him look forward to his career exit.
“The last thing John said was, ‘Fuck, the tables are too close,'” Burns said. “I’m over his head and we’re walking up, and that’s what he says before we go off. I’m like, ‘I know what that means. I’m going to overshoot the tables and hit the ground.'”
Before seeing the alignment of the tables, Burns was game to do the spot. But when he walked into the Dover, Delaware establishment that was housing the event, Burns took one look at the structure and had serious doubts.
“When I showed up the day of, I looked up at the roof and said, ‘I think that’s too high, man. I don’t know about this,'” Burns recalled. “But then John [Zandig] said to me, ‘Well think about it and get back to me.’ He walked away and I’m like, ‘What do you mean, ‘Think about it?’ I freakin’ told you it was too high.’
“But then fans started to come in and I was waiting for my first round match against J.C. Bailey,” he added. “We were sitting down calling our match and John walked up and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘I told you, John. It’s too high.’ But then he says, ‘Well the tables are set and the fans are in. We have to do it.’ So then I thought, ‘Whatever. It’ll be dangerous—just like everything else—and I’ll be fine.”
But Burns was anything but fine.
Upon crashing through the light tubes, slamming through the tables to the sun-scorched ground below, Burns immediately felt excruciating pain throughout his entire body. He remembers the referee coming up to him, asking Burns to squeeze his fingers to indicate that he was able to continue. But Burns admits he regrets doing that.
“It’s the first time I ever thought that I shouldn’t have squeezed his fingers,” Burns said. “I was hurt so bad. My entire back; hips. Everything hurt so bad. I literally was going to say I couldn’t go on.”
Burns won his semifinal bout and had to enter the Barbed Wire Ropes, 200 Light Tubes final match against Ian Rotton with his body taped up after spraying blood on an attending nurse who pulled shards of glass out of his back. In any other situation, Burns questions whether he would go out for a match after a bump like the one he took off the roof. But he knew it was the beginning of the end to his historic career—having won that year’s tournament, the CZW Iron Man Championship four times, and getting inducted into the CZW Hall of Fame in 2004.
While his film focuses on moments such as his iconic ToD showings, as well as what he describes as his “self-destructive” teenage years, it also touches on the influence he had on those who’ve watched and aspired to be like him.
“My influence on a younger generation is something I am concerned about sometimes,” Burns said. “There’s a portion of the film that features videos that people sent to me. They’re a lot of current wrestlers and backyard wrestlers—just people who basically said I inspired them to do what they’re doing. A few of them were even seriously injured. I wrestle with that sometimes.”
Among those influenced was a young Rory Gulak, who would stand by the entrance way guardrail dressed as “Sick” Nick Mondo. Gulak was so enthralled by Burns’ character, that he’d later join the CZW Academy and make his debut as Rory Mondo—entering the death-match scene as an homage to “Sick” Nick.
“I was shocked,” Burns said of Gulak’s debut. “A couple of years into it, he started getting into the violent stuff. He’d send me clips and DVDs, and eventually, I just said, ‘Rory, stop sending me this stuff. I knew you when you were 100 pounds, and now you’re reenacting what I did and getting all scarred up and I’m uncomfortable with this.'”
Gulak took the advise of his childhood hero and later stopped competing in deathmatches. In 2013, Gulak wrestled in the main event of CZW’s Cage of Death XV, where he’d retire the Rory Mondo character. Knowing it’d be his last match before taking a hiatus—returning in 2015 to wrestle under his own name alongside brother Drew Gulak as a member of the Amazing Gulaks—Rory requested that Burns make an appearance.
“He told me, ‘At the end of the match, they’re going to destroy me and give me two weed whacker shots to the stomach,'” Burns said. “It upset me that he said that.”
In the first Tournament of Death final, finalist Wifebeater subjected Burns to such treatment. He knew the pain and understood why Gulak wanted to do it as a way of honoring his idol, but Burns insisted otherwise. He told Gulak that the condition to his appearance was that he not go through with that spot, which Gulak agreed to.
“His whole career, I kind of felt like I owed it to him to show up at one of his matches,” Burns said. “But for me, psychologically, it wasn’t an easy thing to do. I thought, ‘What do I do if I come back as Nick Mondo? How do I show people that I’m not the same person?’ I didn’t want to do that.
“But I psyched myself up for it,” he continued. “A couple of days before the event, I was ready to do it. But still, I was a little worried because I wasn’t going to come back and hit an Assault Driver off the cage or whatever. The fans could have crapped all over that. But I wasn’t willing to come back and get sliced up. I was there for Rory.”
The appearance during Rory’s final match under the Rory Mondo persona, which saw Rory sitting atop Burns’ shoulders at the end (as Rory once did as a child following one of Burns’ matches), was the last time Burns was seen in a CZW ring.
In 2011, following the tsunami that destroyed parts of Japan, Burns got a job documenting disaster-relief work in the country and would frequently go to the disaster zones to capture footage for stories before returning to Tokyo to edit them.
“I had a long-term goal of coming here since 2000 when I came to Japan for wrestling,” Burns said. “Suddenly, the door opened, and I got that job. Somehow, I’ve kept finding gigs here and there ever since.”
A lot has change since Burns’ body routinely met instruments of destruction—thumbtacks, barbed wire, light tubes, etc. The death-match wrestling scene isn’t as strong as it once was, with potential performers realizing the risks through the lessons of those who have come before. The very company that defined Burns and redefined death-match wrestling in the United States, CZW, has changed its structure over the years, leaving some fans disgruntled by the lack of blood spilled at a CZW show today.
But Burns asks spectators of the squared circle—especially the breed that thirsts for blood—to consider the industry’s past.
“Where are Zandig, Lobo, Wifebeater, and Nick Mondo today,” Burns said. “Most of us didn’t make it. We didn’t last. Yet at the same time, many of the hardcore guys from the generation before us continued on with their careers. Ultraviolent wrestling is exciting. I understood the appeal back then and I still do. But keep in mind it does take its toll.”
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