Shawn Spears is in an interesting spot in his career right now.
With a career spanning nearly two decades, the St. Catharines, Ont. native, born Ronnie Arneill, is one of the more veteran wrestlers on the All Elite Wrestling roster, but finds himself still as hungry as ever.
“I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, but I still feel like I have a lot to offer,” Spears told TSN.ca “I’ve always been a guy throughout my career who’s been fighting forward. That’s the way I like to put it. I’ve always been fighting for that next opportunity. I wasn’t always given much opportunity throughout my career. I’ve been very fortunate and I’m very grateful for what I’ve achieved so far, but I’m still a guy who is constantly fighting and pushing for that next step.”
You can catch AEW Dynamite Wednesday night at 8pm et/5pm pt on TSN2, the TSN app, streaming on TSN Direct and on TSN.ca.
Spears, 40, was among the first additions to the AEW roster in 2019, debuting at the company’s inaugural Double or Nothing pay-per-view event.
He entered the company after his second stint in World Wrestling Entertainment, a promotion under whose umbrella Spears had spent much of the past decade. Spears had been wrestling under the name “The Perfect 10” Tye Dillinger with a gimmick that had caught on with the crowd who would chant “10” during his matches.
Having found success with that gimmick, Spears could have easily adapted it into an AEW persona, but chose to go in a completely different direction with his character. It was time for a change.
“Being able to come over to AEW, I was asked what I wanted to do,” Spears said. “I said I wanted to do a complete 180. I think we kinda need to get people talking again. I think I need to go this route. I think people have enjoyed this for an extended period of time and it was time for a reinvention. I think any time you start somewhere new or you’ve been away and come back, something has to change. You have to be able to evolve as a performer and I think the audience expects something different instead of you just resting on your laurels.”
Now a sadistic heel with the penchant for chair shots, “The Chairman of AEW” was soon paired up with the legendary Tully Blanchard as his on-screen advisor and manager. Spears says the chance to work with an icon of the business has been a great pleasure and given him the opportunity to learn from someone whose knowledge of the industry is unparalleled.
“The industry has evolved, but it’s only evolved in a way where the spots and the moves are bigger,” Spears said. “They’re a little faster. They’re more high-risk. That’s all that’s changed. The very fundamentals of professional wrestling have not. The foundation of good versus evil has not changed. Technique has not changed, so [Blanchard] is very sound in those areas and when he speaks, he makes a great deal of sense. He makes it very understandable, no matter what level of experience you’re at – whenever you’re able to hear Tully Blanchard speak, you’re able to soak it in. So working with him now coming up on two years, I believe, personally, has been a godsend. And it’s an opportunity that I’ve welcomed with open arms and probably would never have happened had I not walked through the doors of AEW.”
In early March, Spears and Blanchard joined the ranks of The Pinnacle, Maxwell Jacob Friedman’s new stable, alongside FTR (Cash Wheeler and Dax Harwood) and Wardlow. The group is in the midst of a heated feud with Inner Circle (Chris Jericho, Jake Hager, Sammy Guevara, Santana and Ortiz) and the two quintets will meet on the May 5 edition of Dynamite in a “Blood and Guts” match.
With rules very similar to the classic “WarGames” matches from Jim Crockett Promotions, the name for the match is cleverly derived from Vince McMahon’s suggestion on a 2019 WWE investors call that while his company was offering PG content, the competition (AEW) was doing “blood and guts.”
While this type of spectacle match normally occurs late in a feud, often as its blow-off match, Blood and Guts will go down very early in the Pinnacle-Inner Circle rivalry. Though the two factions have been involved in a number of bloody brawls in recent weeks, a match between Jericho and Harwood on the Apr. 10 edition of Dynamite has been the only official in-ring interaction between the two groups to date.
Spears says he’s read a lot of online criticism that the match is happening too soon in the feud, but has to disagree with the premise of the argument.
“The thing is, the general audience who think that or have that opinion, they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Spears explained. “They don’t know where this battle could possibly take us. They don’t know how heated this is going to get. This might last another year. There might be plans in place that could take this even above and beyond Blood and Guts. So this idea that it’s too soon or ‘Well, it’s a pretty big match for these guys already,’ remember that this is the first time that you’re going to see all these guys in the ring together. You’ve seen a little bit with Dax and Jericho, but other than that, you’ve never seen all members of The Pinnacle versus all members of the Inner Circle in the ring at the same time.”
Spears says he’s also well aware of the reputation AEW has developed for delivering in their high-concept matches, from last spring’s Stadium Stampede to the parking lot brawl between Santana and Ortiz and the Best Friends (Trent? and Chuck Taylor) last fall. Despite the high standard set, Spears doesn’t think there’s any additional onus on the 10 men to perform because everybody knows his role.
“I think AEW kind of thrives on these kind of matches,” Spears said. “I don’t feel any pressure as a unit going into this because we have all the pieces in play in The Pinnacle and if you look at the other side in the Inner Circle, all of these guys are experienced performers. They’ve all been in high-pressure situations. Now you can argue that I haven’t been in many high-pressure situations, but I think that boils down to what you define as a high-pressure situation and – on the flipside of that – I’ve been waiting for something like this for almost 19 years. This is the first time ever that it will take place in AEW, so the idea is not lost on us.
“Now, if you’re expecting to see some kind of crazy, beautiful, flippity-floppy kind of stuff, that is not going to be in our wheelhouse. I promise you that. If you’re queasy about seeing blood and seeing people getting brutalized and beaten up, this might not be the match you want to tune into and there’s nothing wrong with that.”
May 5 will mark the fourth occasion that Dynamite will air unopposed with the WWE moving NXT to Tuesday nights earlier in April. While the move gives AEW Wednesday nights to itself, Spears says it also creates a wrestling fan’s dream.
“I think that it’s awesome that there’s wrestling every day of the week now on TV for everybody to enjoy,” Spears said. “When I was growing up, there wasn’t that. There was wrestling on maybe once a week for a while. So now fast forward 20 years and wrestling can be on from Monday to Friday and it’s a viewer’s option to watch whatever the hell you want.”
The early returns for AEW unopposed on Wednesday nights have been a great success with viewership over the 1 million mark for both nights on TNT. Though things are looking upward, Spears says this isn’t a time for complacency for AEW.
“It’s not lost on us that just because there’s no head-to-head competition, we can’t rest on our heels a little bit,” Spears said. “We still have a show to put out. We still have work to do. If anything, we have to work twice as hard now because you’ve seen the numbers bump as of late. People have a lot of options on TV on Wednesday nights, just like they do Monday through Friday. They’re going to watch what they want to watch, so it’s on us, now more than ever, to put out a product that’s eye-catching, that’s provocative and runs that fine line of ‘Whoa, I gotta see this because I don’t want to miss it.’"
The mantra of never stop working is one that Spears is attempting to instill in the next generation of performers. Alongside fellow Canadian Matt Clement (WWE’s Tyler Breeze), Spears opened Flatbacks Wrestling School in Apopka, Fla. in the summer of 2019. The impetus for opening a school came when the pair was giving a training seminar in Florida and were surprised to see a lack of fundamental skills in some of those in attendance.
“There were some people there with five years under their belt or six years under their belt and we were going through some of the steps and some of these people with all that experience didn’t know how to throw a punch properly,” Spears said. “We were like ‘Hold on a second, what’s going on here?’ So it was a very telling seminar and afterwards we kinda looked at each other. A lot of these young kids that are out there right now, they’re not being taught properly or they’re being pushed through real quick and I don’t know if it’s a money grab or it’s just a lack of coaching experience, but someone’s got to try to teach these kids.”
Establishing a strong work ethic early, as well as the expectations for the intensive work ahead, is key, Spears says.
“At the end of the day, this industry is brutally hard,” Spears said. “It’s so difficult and I think that’s lost on a lot of young people coming into the industry today. If we can at least start them off on the right foot, get them properly trained and safely trained more so than anything else, then the rest is up to them. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. We wanted to make sure we at least provided the best opportunity for talent to start out the proper and safe way.”
In evaluating potential students, Spears believes that it’s great to see inherent talent, but it’s more important to see drive and dedication.
“I can teach you how to wrestle,” Spears said. “I can teach anybody how to wrestle. But I can’t teach how the industry is going to treat you. I can’t teach you how you’re going to respond to that treatment. I can only prepare you as best I can. So someone who is open to those teachings, someone who is open to living this 24/7 – and you hear that a lot. You hear a lot of the all-time greats say that this is a 24/7, 365 [business]. I equate that to a sickness for me. Like, if I’m busy throughout the day and I stop at any given moment, there’s a wrestling thought that pops into my mind. Something pops up – a spot, an idea, a match. This is constantly turning in my mind every day to the point where it’s almost a sickness. I can’t shut it off. I don’t know if I’ll be able to one day – I hope so and don’t want to drive myself crazy. But anybody who I can see that in, where this is going to be their life and this is going to be front and centre above everything else that they have in their life, that’s only going to improve their chances of getting to do this as a career. It’s very, very difficult, but it is possible.”
Spears credits those who helped train him and start him in the business – namely, Impact Wrestling star Eric Young – for guiding him in the right direction and it’s the advice that he's received that he intends to impart upon his students – not just in wrestling, but in the way they go about their lives.
“Being a good person goes a very long way and not just in wrestling, but in life,” Spears said. “With everything going on in the world and all that kind of stuff, I think being a genuinely good person, being good to others and being good on your way up is extremely important because not everybody has an upwards swing of a career. And if they do, eventually, it’s going to take a couple of dips. So those people that you meet [on the way] up are the same people you meet on the way down. Be a good person, put your nose to the ground and just grind it out. Hit it hard, man. Run hard and just don’t look back and don’t stop. Don’t stop for anybody.”