Years before Markus Burke was a growling grappler on the Canadian independent pro wrestling scene, he was Eric Doucet, a boy from Campbellton, New Brunswick, who didn't eat meat.
It's unusual enough to see a kid in grade school decide to become vegetarian, much less one from a meat-and-potatoes place like Campbellton. But Burke knew early on that he didn't want to eat what everyone else around him did or what his mother brought home from hunting trips.
"I never had red meat in my entire life," he told Bleacher Report.
Not everyone respected his decision to cut meat from his diet. Vegetarianism was an against-the-grain choice, especially in a city that Burke described as having "an old-school philosophy." For the most part, the negative reaction was lighthearted teasing, but when he was six years old, things turned dark in an instant.
Burke recalled a night when his older cousin babysat him, leading to an incident that would never leave him.
"He knew that I was vegetarian. And he had a couple of drinks," Burke said. His cousin cooked a slab of meat in a pan on the stove and tried to get Burke to break his vegetarianism. "He said, 'Today you're going to eat meat and become a man.'"
When Burke refused, his cousin flung the meat and the hot oil in which it was cooking at him. The resulting burn left a scar on his left pectoral muscle, a misshapen splotch that remains visible today.
The surreal, strange moment galvanized him. The boy wouldn't change for someone else. "I'm not going to let anyone dictate who I am or what I am," Burke told himself.
He would go on to become a vegan in high school, expanding on his vegetarian ways by excluding animal products such as milk and eggs along with meat. Today, veganism is a key part of his wrestling persona. It's a part of his identity that he's fiercely proud of—to the ring, Burke often sports a T-shirt with the word "vegan" stretched across it.
Markus Burke @veganwrestler
#Champion https://t.co/GLqK86IV4F12/5/2016, 1:48:37 AM
Burke is not alone. The pro wrestling world is home to a number of vegans.
Zack Sabre Jr., the current Pro Wrestling Guerrilla world champion who wrestled in WWE's Cruiserweight Classic tournament in 2016, went vegan about a year-and-a-half ago. Allie from Impact Wrestling fully transitioned to a vegan diet three years back. WWE's Austin Aries and Aliyah, United Kingdom stars Pete Dunne and Tyler Bate and Germany's Big Daddy Walter are all vegans as well.
One might assume the athletes who bound between the ring ropes are fueled by meat—and lots of it. The wrestling world is one filled with the muscle-bound and the insanely fit. For many, it's hard to imagine consuming protein sufficient to sustain a chokeslamming lifestyle by eating only plants.
WWE universal champion Goldberg told Mick Rouse of GQ that during one post-workout meal, he ate 12 eggs and six strips of bacon before moving on to two pizzas loaded with hamburger meat.
That fits better with the general expectation of what a wrestler eats. For Burke, Sabre Jr., Allie and others, though, a vegan diet is the better fit. They chose to switch to plant-based diets to improve their health, for the sake of animal rights and, in some cases, as a natural evolution of their childhood eating habits.
An Early Distaste
Impact Wrestling star Allie, who first stepped into the ring as Cherry Bomb in her native Ontario, has been a vegetarian since she was 14 years old.
IMPACT WRESTLING @IMPACTWRESTLING
It seems as if @ImpactLVN is out for @BraxtonSutter & @AllieImpact. Yikes! Congrats on ur #XDivision win anyways, Braxton #MakeImpactGreat https://t.co/UpymU2db1d3/10/2017, 1:36:02 AM
She had an aversion to meat well before that, though.
"Ever since I was a kid, I had a really hard time eating meat," Allie explained. "Every time I ate chicken, I actually spat it out in my napkin and gave it to my dog."
For her, it was hard not to picture where what she was eating came from. "I would always see the animal in my mind. I never understood why I was eating another creature. That just never made sense to me," she said.
Former WWE world champion Daniel Bryan had a similar issue.
The hugely popular bearded underdog temporarily adopted a vegan diet in 2009 before a soy allergy and a life on the road led him to include more animal products. He tried veganism as an attempt to ward off all the staph infections he was getting, as he explained in Yes! My Improbable Journey to the Main Event of WrestleMania.
Bryan, however, has long had a distaste for meat.
"I am not a natural meat-eater. When I was a child, my dad would go hunting and bring home big deer and elk, so we'd have have a freezer full of deer and elk steak," Bryan wrote in his autobiography. "I'd see my dad hanging the carcass at my friend's place. It was jarring to see to the dead eyes of such beautiful creatures."
Crossing paths with his dinner unsettled Burke as a kid, too.
His mother was about as far from a vegan as you can get. "She's a huge carnivore," Burke said. "She's a hunter. She would go up to Labrador and hunt caribou, hunt moose or deer and have enough meat for the whole year."
A four-year-old Burke stumbled onto the spoils of one of those hunts one day. He walked into his garage to see a dead animal hung up inside.
"I would have none of it," Burke said.
Vegetarianism soon followed, even if his mother struggled to figure out what to feed her suddenly herbivorous son. "My mom tried. But she had to adapt. You can imagine a kid from the '80s with no internet coming from a small town," Burke explained.
He was an anomaly in Campbellton, where, as he put it, "There were no vegetarians walking around."
Burke isn't as much on an island today, though. The wrestling world in which he makes his living has seen healthier, more conscious eating become increasingly common.
Inspired to Make a Change
Sabre Jr., the British grappler known for his array of torturous submission holds, adopted a vegan diet after the 2015 edition of PWG's Battle of Los Angeles tournament. Like Allie, Bryan and Burke, Sabre Jr. was never a big carnivore growing up.
"It had been a long time coming to some degree. When I told my mum that I was vegan, she had a few stories of when I was a kid. There were multiple periods where I became more inquisitive as a child, and I stopped eating meat at four or five years old."
As an adult, issues with how food is produced urged him to adjust his diet and move away from animal products altogether.
The Technical Wizard watched the documentary Forks Over Knives while on the road, and the film turned out to be a gateway into making a life change. "Educating myself, I didn't want to support industrialized agriculture. It's unethical. It's making the population incredibly unhealthy," he said.
For him, the motivation for moving toward veganism was two-fold: "A complete balance between ethics and health," as he put it. "I can't detach the two."
"I want to be as fit and healthy as I can possibly be," Sabre Jr. said. "I want to perform at the highest level to promote veganism in the best possible light. Also, selfishly, I want to wrestle forever and live until I'm 110."
And while he always ate a lot of fruits and vegetables, poor eating habits were easy to come by. Wrestling is a nomadic business. Road warriors find themselves trying to fill their stomachs with whatever they can find in airports and at fast food drive-in windows.
"When I broke out in Europe, I was wrestling three times a weekend, and you get in the habit of getting a sandwich from the petrol station," Sabre Jr. said.
That kind of food often left him lethargic. His current diet is one rich with whole foods, plenty of produce, nuts, lentils, etc. He credits the switch with an uptick in energy and an improvement he can see in the ring.
"Since becoming vegan, my performance is on a different level," he explained.
Allie has noticed a significant difference since choosing a plant-based diet, too. She noted that she trains with a kickboxer who is often impressed with her wind, as she's able to push on through after he has put her through hell.
There's no doubt in her mind veganism is key to that. "Once I cut out dairy, my body completely changed," Allie said. "I can't put over how much healthier I am and how much healthier I feel. I feel lighter. I'm lighter on my feet. I have more endurance."
As much as she's seen health benefits from ditching animal products, ethics were the real driving force for her decision.
"I get really emotional when I talk about animals," Allie explained.
She transitioned off eggs and dairy after learning about the dark side of those industries. "I was completely horrified about how those animals are treated," she said. "It didn't even take much research."
Burke had little information to go on when he turned vegan in high school. The internet had yet to explode. Veganism was a rarity, the doctrine of a tiny tribe.
So the lanky athlete was venturing into some territory unknown to him at the time.
"I didn't know how to eat. I was just eating whatever my mom made me with no beans, no protein," Burke said.
As a result, he struggled to put any weight on his long frame. Today, he is 6'2" and 225 pounds, but he graduated high school weighing 150.
"It took a while to get where I am," he explained. "I wouldn't have it any different. I worked for it. I worked for the size I am."
Rather than incorporate supplements to bulk up, Burke chose to eat a large number of small meals throughout the day. "The key for me is eating all the time," he said, citing oats, quinoa, lentils, nuts and seeds as some of what he consumes. Burke also juices fruits and vegetables, which he says infuses him with energy.
And like Sabre Jr. and Allie, it impacts what he does in the ring.
"I've had 60-minute draws with no problem. When other guys are huffing and puffing, I'm still ready to go," Burke said. "The life that I have lived, being a vegan, exercising, all that stuff, is paying off right now. Living a clean life has really paid off."
Allie's daily diet is similarly marked by variety. She looks to seitan, tempeh, chickpeas and lentils for protein. She will add a protein shake to the mix if she's traveling or working a busy TV taping.
She's also a big fan of salad, even as stereotypical as that is for vegetarians.
"I eat tons of salad. That's just because I like it," she explained. "You don't have to be a brontosaurus chewing on greens to be vegan."
A Shift for the Squared Circle
When Burke first entered the wrestling business, he worked as Mr. Suave, a run-of-the-mill cocky heel character.
With a few years under his belt, he began to incorporate his personal identity into his performance persona more. He became the fiery vegan who threatened to hunt down his enemies like they did animals.
"This was me turned up to 1,000," Burke said. "All those years of people making fun of the way I ate created this crazy character I am today."
This was the persona he displayed when auditioning for the reality competition show WWE Tough Enough. It was as a loudly vegan wrestler that he landed prominent spots in cards in Quebec, that he began to land work in more provinces across Canada.
"It was strange," he recalled. "It took me a different path for me. It opened doors because I was being me."
When he was much younger, he faced teasing about his diet. Burke remembered that he "always got flak for it," that people poked fun at the way he ate. Things are different today.
His peers are curious, open to listening.
"People ask for advice. 'I'm trying to lose a little weight.' 'I'm trying to gain a little weight,'" Burke said.
Allie has had similar experiences. Sure, her friend and former fellow Impact Wrestling star Jade takes playful jabs at her on Twitter, but mostly she gets inquisitive reactions.
Mia Yim @MiaYim
Eating meat in front of a sleepy & hungry @AllieImpact nomnomnom @wolfinjapan would be proud ^.^ https://t.co/3CyD2RII8d1/5/2017, 4:29:07 AM
"Mostly people ask questions. They're curious as to what I eat," Allie said. "Some people are legitimately interested. They want to understand."
When approached, Allie realizes she has an opportunity to educate.
"I try to have a voice for veganism. I try to get that into everything I do. I want people to know that there are vegans out there who are healthy. I have a tiny platform, and I try to use that."
Sabre Jr. has often run into open-minded responses of his own when his fellow wrestlers discover that he doesn't meat, milk or eggs.
"I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction. By default, the modern wrestler is interested in nutrition. They take care of themselves and their bodies," he said. "For the most part, I've been surprised by the genuine intrigue."
Airport breakfast house. https://t.co/3VMH6tJXmE1/15/2017, 3:08:31 PM
"Wrestlers are quite progressive. You can't be narrow-minded and jump around in spandex with other men."
Perhaps these responses are symptomatic of a larger shift in the wrestling culture as a whole. For years, the life of a wrestler was much like that of a rock star. Drugs, booze, late nights and hard living were commonplace. Stories of how hard Ric Flair partied or how much Andre the Giant drank are part of wrestling lore.
It's hard to imagine those generations eating particularly well. And there surely weren't grapplers choosing veganism back then.
Wrestlers appear to be embracing a healthier lifestyle today. Peeks into their lives via social media show them juicing, doing Crossfit and engaging in late-night video game sessions. What's inspiring that change?
"People are realizing they want longevity. They're thinking toward the future and not so much in the now. I think people are learning from the past," Allie said.
For her, a major injury increased her focus on self-care.
"When I broke my collarbone a couple of years ago and was laid out, I couldn't do anything. It was a really big eye-opener. I've got to take care of myself. I have to give my body what it needs. If I'm going to beat it up in a wrestling ring and take bumps and break bones, I have to nourish it and make sure that it's healthy."
She's far from the only wrestler to start employing that strategy.
Perhaps it's an increase in accessible information driving that change. Perhaps it's a response to what today's wrestlers witnessed with the past generations.
"Previous wrestlers, so many have sadly passed away so young and so soon. My generation and younger have entered into wrestling with that foresight," Sabre Jr.
He also credited the WWE's talent wellness policy that screens Superstars for narcotics and performance-enhancing drugs. Sabre noted the policy has affected even those not working for the company, saying it "trickles through" to the indies.
Not everyone is going to abandon red meat and cheddar cheese, but a surge in veganism seems to be a part of an overall movement for increased health within the world of the squared circle.
Sabre. Jr. is happy to see it. "If these are trends, it's a great thing," he said.
Sabre. Jr., Burke, Allie and the rest of wrestling's vegans have chosen to build their bodies with health in mind, minus meat, dairy or eggs, foods most of us eat without a second thought. They are defying stereotypes of what a vegan is and educating folks on the subject when possible.
It may be seem like a strange way of life to some, but for Sabre Jr., the way he used to eat is what's strange to him.
"I couldn't possibly imagine eating animals now," he said. "It seems baffling to me that I ever did."
Markus Burke (@veganwrestler) is an independent wrestler based out of New Brunswick, Canada. Allie (@AllieImpact) is a former Impact Wrestling Knockouts champion and Women Superstar Uncensored titleholder. Zack Sabre Jr. (@zacksabrejr) is an independent wrestler who currently holds the Revolution Pro Wrestling British heavyweight title, the Pro Wrestling Guerrilla World Championship and the Evolve Championship.
Ryan Dilbert is the WWE Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.