"Tick tock, tick tock...I'm comin'!"
It had been more than a decade since WWE audiences heard that tell-tale metronome, followed by rapper Silkk The Shocker's opening salvo, sound from the PA like a siren. The crowd of 42,000-plus packing Houston's Minute Maid Park on January 26, 2020—in attendance for the 33rd Royal Rumble pay-per-view—roared with recognition as MVP (aka Montel Vontavious Porter) took his cue and strutted down the entrance ramp in gear that paid homage to Black Panther's villain, Killmonger.
The 47-year-old Miami native and longtime Houston resident—real name Hassan Hamin Assad—was a surprise entrant at No. 12 in that evening's men's Rumble match. Universal champion Brock Lesnar, alone in the ring after dispatching 10 successive would-be conquerors, licked his chops, while MVP wisely took a moment to bask and flex.
Alas, 24 seconds after squaring up with The Beast Incarnate, MVP was tossed over the rope and eliminated. No matter. As Assad recalls in a recent phone interview from Houston, "My son got to meet Rey Mysterio. That makes it all worth the pursuit."
It was Assad's son, now aged six, who set this don't-call-it-a-comeback story in motion.
Coming into 2020, his dad last competed for Vince McMahon's empire in November 2010. But, in Assad's retelling, the company "was coming to Houston with the Rumble, and my son had recently become a huge wrestling fan. I had been contacted previously about being a surprise entrant, and we agreed not to for whatever reasons, but this time I reached out to them and asked if I could, and they were happy to have me. I told them, 'I just want my son to be able to see daddy at a WWE event.'"
The reunion, as it turned out, didn't end there. Heading into Sunday's Royal Rumble at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, a resurgent MVP is—however improbable—prominently featured as leader of main event faction The Hurt Business.
"I'm glad that people are being entertained," Assad says. "I'm glad that at this stage of my career, my talents are still being appreciated by the biggest wrestling company in the world and its fanbase. So, for me, this is very humbling."
A Rocky Road to WWE
Early in his life, there were indications he might not be a free man by the time he was old enough to start his own family.
It's no secret that Assad, born Alvin Burke Jr. in 1973 to a white mother and Black father—raised in poverty-stricken Opa-Locka, Florida—spent significant time behind bars from age 16 to 25. In January 1990, he and two friends ranging in age from 15 to 20 robbed a cruise ship of more than $80,000. His accomplices were swiftly caught. Burke Jr. fled to California before heeding the advice of his father—who worked as a corrections officer—and turning himself in. He pleaded guilty to 10 counts of armed kidnapping and robbery and was sentenced to more than 18 years behind bars.
By the time he came out of prison, he'd changed his name to Hassan Assad as a clean slate and—at the encouragement of a corrections officer he met in jail—turned his energies toward pro wrestling. Already seasoned by life experiences that no training-school membership could buy, he wasn't willing to be walked over in the name of ritual hazing. And that applied as much to his initial run with WWE as the patchwork of smaller promotions for whom he plied his trade from 2001-05.
"I came from an environment where that doesn't stand," he says. "A lot of the guys that were into that realized right away by the way I carried myself that I wasn't having any part of that. There were a few times where I had to let guys know who were senior to me, 'I respect the hierarchy and will pay my dues, but I'm a grown-ass man.' If I had an issue, I wasn't going to be treated like some kind of a kid rookie."
Bonding Over Loogies
After several years as an indie-scene hopeful under the name Antonio Banks, Assad got his shot in WWE. He rechristened himself MVP and set about a phenomenal stretch from 2006 to 2010 that saw him reach the industry's most vaunted heights, including two runs as United States champion.
As one decade turned to another, though, Assad opted to chart more unpredictable waters.
For the better part of the 2010s, he wrestled for a myriad of worldwide promotions while dedicating himself to jiu-jitsu, dabbling in multimedia detours like a fledgling YouTube channel and a podcast. He gained a reputation on social media as a politically progressive polyglot with unfiltered takes on everything from his love for Steely Dan and New York hardcore legends Agnostic Front to deep reservations concerning God and religion.
He was living a lifestyle that would have been limited within the strictures of WWE's year-round touring schedule and increasingly family-oriented approach to content and marketing.
Assad describes himself as "Mister bachelor, jet-setting world playboy" during much of that era. In 2014, his son was born, but it took him a while to embrace his newfound responsibility.
"I enjoyed being single and selfish and only having myself to worry about. Honestly, the first time I saw my son, the angels didn't sing. The heavens didn't open up. I didn't have that moment where I was like, 'Oh, my child.' I wasn't happy, 'cause I didn't want to be a dad."
That was, until the first time he and his son took turns hocking loogies together.
"We were playing in the shower," Assad recalls. "He was still a baby, and I spit, and he looked at me and he put his lips together. He didn't spit, but he just imitated my spit sound. So I spit again, and he smiled, and this time he actually managed to spit a little bit. And it hit me: What a cliche moment—the dad's teaching his son how to spit. And I thought, 'You know what, man? This dad thing is all right.' And as he started to take steps and then run through the house and play, I realized for the first time in my life that I loved something more than me."
Those closest to Assad eagerly observed their friend's slow evolution. Ring of Honor's Kenny King was part of a powerhouse stable at TNA (now Impact) from 2014 to 2015 known as the Beat Down Clan, which was anchored by MVP, eventual Hurt Business cornerstone Bobby Lashley, King and current WWE color-commentator Samoa Joe.
King remembers how, when the mother of Assad's child was expecting, "He would ask Bobby and I a lot about it and pick our brains in the same way I pick his brain about wrestling." And while they have largely taken different professional paths since the Beat Down Clan dissolved, King says, "the kind of dad that he's turned out to be is amazing. It really kind of makes me proud, because in the initial going [at TNA], that wasn't one of the things [we bonded over], but that is one of the things now that we definitely bond over: fatherhood."
Being a dad might have softened Assad in his personal life, but as he transitioned into an elder-statesman role with more input behind the curtain at companies including TNA and, in the mid-to-late 2010s, Lucha Underground and Major League Wrestling (MLW), his reputation for being an outspoken, outsized personality only hardened. As King says, "He's a principled man, you know, and he's a veteran now. He can speak on so many different sides of the wrestling business."
Shelton Benjamin, Assad's longtime friend and onscreen ally in The Hurt Business, puts a fine point on it: "He always stuck to his guns, even if it was to his detriment."
While details surrounding Assad's split from TNA in 2015 have always been a bit murky, he has been open about being let go by Lucha Underground in 2016 after inviting Lucha talent onto his podcast—hosted by MLW Radio Network, a multimedia arm of Lucha's rival promotion—without permission.
And his ensuing stint as wrestler/producer for MLW itself was cut short in 2018 for reasons that neither side has ever been completely forthcoming about, though Assad has characterized the split on social media as "acrimonious."
MLW CEO Court Bauer, in a phone interview, concurs that the separation "wasn't amicable," elaborating only to say that, "It's difficult when you work with a friend and things happen that disrupt that friendship and business relationship." Still, Bauer is effusive in remarking that Assad, "was incredibly generous with talent and dedicated to elevating our prospects and turning them into stars. A lot of people in a senior position would be very selfish, and he was the exact opposite."
Nevertheless, at 45 years old, Assad had no choice but to make ends meet for the kinds of mom-and-pop outfits he'd barnstormed fresh out of prison. Thinking back on that theoretical ebb, Benjamin is diplomatic but blunt in saying, "If you look at any really successful person, they have many failures."
Zooming out and addressing Assad's stops and starts since initially parting ways with WWE, Benjamin added: "When you look at the overall history of MVP, I wouldn't say these are failures; I would say they were learning experiences, because while he didn't get a foothold in these places, he always made an impact wherever he went, and that speaks to his talent. He was still building his brand. There's talent there that you can't deny."
Return to the Bright Lights
Which brings us back to the present. King observes how in the years leading up to MVP's triumphant WWE return, "He was like a Ronin. So many guys that I know will come up to me and say, 'Hey, man, I ran into your boy MVP, and he had so many jewels—so much knowledge to drop on me.' At this stage in the game, he sees young talent and prepares them for the road ahead. He's just trying to leave the business better than he found it."
And he would get precisely that chance.
Roughly 24 hours after his 2020 Rumble cameo, MVP got booked for a bout against his boy's hero, Mysterio, on WWE Raw. And over subsequent weeks, he was called on to revive his talk show, "The VIP Lounge," establishing himself as a compelling contemporary heel in the process.
By mid-February, he'd announced that WWE recruited him as a backstage producer (he would ultimately sign a multiyear contract that summer), a fluid role commonly filled by former full-time grapplers that can involve everything from long-term booking to grooming upcoming stars.
In MVP's case, that meant refashioning himself as a player-coach, competing on occasion for accolades like the United States Championship he helped restore luster to in the mid-aughts while brainstorming how to make the most out of personnel on the roster who'd been waiting for opportunity—whether real or renewed.
Before long, a stable of all-Black male superstars with varying pedigrees who'd been somewhat creatively adrift—44-year-old Lashley, 45-year-old super-athlete Benjamin and dynamic 31-year-old cruiserweight Cedric Alexander—coalesced around MVP, who emerged as the unit's onscreen mouthpiece and mentor. By mid-spring, they'd branded themselves The Hurt Business, and their modus operandi was matter-of-fact: kick ass, make money and look good while doing it.
Assad boasts that after months of cultivating the group's signature out-of-ring attire, which toes the line between Wall Street and Miami Vice, "I get messages all the time from young men saying, 'Hey, I got to go get a suit.' I've actually had tailors tell me they've had young men saying they want to get a suit like The Hurt Business. There's a lot to be said for men of color to be presented successfully. That's something beautiful—when you're a kid to see somebody that looks like you presented that way. That's a wonderful thing that we're able to make a positive influence in that way."
The sharp-dressed quartet quickly gathered gold around its collective waists and earned notice from afar for both its fashion-forward aesthetic and throwback, mercenary approach to its adversaries. Benjamin, who advocated behind the scenes for MVP's return, acknowledges that his running mate returned the gesture once he was back in the fold and helped set the tone for what the faction would evolve into.
"It's really simple," Benjamin says. "If you're a talented guy, a stand-up guy, he's going to speak up for you. The great thing about MVP is you don't have to wonder where you stand with him because he doesn't pull punches."
No matter how that principled pugnaciousness may have been a double-edged sword for Assad throughout his travels, this past 12 months has been a saga of redemption.
"Everyone has failures," Benjamin says. "But I think it all was just leading back to where he is today."
And despite sitting at the precipice of retirement two winters ago, Assad is concretizing his legacy with one hell of a third act.
As he sees it, his wrestling odyssey merely mirrors a lifetime of searching that started with his mother, whom he describes as, "the first person that I remember who encouraged me to ask questions, to follow through on my inquisitive side," and has gotten him through despairing depths and ultimately led him on an eclectic and globe-trotting journey toward something resembling contented middle age.
It's enough to fill the memoir he's been promising to write for several years, which he says, is "either going to be like Bret Hart's book, where it's like 800 pages, or I'm going to have to put it out in installments, because it seems like I'm still adding chapters."
But the conclusion, as Assad sees it, is already set: "Wrestling saved my life."
The 2021 Royal Rumble will be streamed live this Sunday at 7 p.m. ET on the WWE Network.