Being in Iraq earlier this month as part of WWE’s Tribute to the Troops was something wrestling superstar MVP says he’ll never forget.

It was a humbling experience, he says, to have been in the midst of heroes who risk their lives each and every day to secure our freedom.

But, as he stood with a group of Marines in a war zone, he gazed at the fences topped with razor wire and the towers that dotted the landscape. The memory gave him chills.

“You guys would be surprised at how much I can relate to what you’re going through,” he told the soldiers. “The uniforms, the housing barracks, being told what to do, the razor wire. I can relate to that. But I didn’t have to worry about anybody trying to blow me up.”

Just 10 years ago MVP, who plays the role of the cocky, bling-loving character Montel Vontavious Porter, was a prisoner in a similar scenario. But he was a prisoner in the most literal sense of the word.

MVP, once known as Alvin Burke Jr., served little more than half of an 18 1/2-year prison term for armed robbery and kidnapping after being sentenced as a 16-year-old member of a Miami-area street gang. It’s a period he wishes never had happened, but it’s also something that helped him eventually turn his life around.

“Once upon a time, I wasn’t a very nice guy,” says the three-time U.S. heavyweight champion. “I went through a transition. I had good parents — a very dedicated mother that went way beyond the call of duty to provide the best that she could. I made decisions like a lot of young guys do that were bad decisions. I’m adamant about making sure that people understand. I don’t say that I made mistakes because I was conscious of my actions and I knew what the consequences were. I didn’t accidentally do the things I did. I chose to do the things I did. I just made bad decisions.”

Those decisions, he says, affected everyone around him.

“I didn’t do that time by myself. My family did that time with me. I really wanted to make myself a better person. I started out pretty good. My mom made sure that I went to the better schools and that I kept up with my reading. She just wanted me to be a better person. I slid down that slippery slope and realized it was up to me to climb back up that slope, and I realized that if I wanted to be a member of society and function as a part of that society, then I had to conduct myself that way. If I didn’t want to be treated like an animal, I had to stop acting like one.”

But he had to grow up fast. At age 16, after running with gangs and getting in scrapes with the law, he was sentenced to more than 18 years in prison. His bad decisions cost him a sizable chunk of his life. During the nine years MVP spent on the inside, he decided to take his life down another path.

“One of the first lessons I learned was not to serve the time, but to make the time serve me.”

The reformed wrestler wants to use his past to help others with similar backgrounds. He wants to let them know there’s another way, a better way, to succeed in life. He sees the hopelessness and despair that pervades the lives of inner-city kids in a “bling-bling” society, and knows what it’s like trying to fit in. But there’s a way they can avoid the bad decisions he made.

“The prison system in general doesn’t really serve to rehabilitate as much as it serves to warehouse,” he says. “If you don’t take the initiative to make yourself better, through education or whatever small things that they do offer, then you’re doomed to live that life.

“In the state of Florida, you’re given a number your first time in prison. With each return, you’re given a letter to accompany that number. So I met guys in there with d’s, e’s, f’s. I actually met a guy with an i. I just knew at that point that wasn’t the life I wanted to live. The violence, the ignorance, having a life where you really don’t have a life. You’re told when to get up, when to go to bed, what to eat. And then the pain of being separated from my family, watching my little brothers turn into men without me being there to guide them. I just made up my mind that wasn’t the life for me. That wasn’t what I wanted.”

While incarcerated, one of his corrections officers who had been moonlighting as an independent wrestler offered to train him to be a worker when he got out of prison. He was released in 1999 and embarked on a wrestling career.

“I’ve been very fortunate ... in my life and in my career ... that I’ve had older veterans take an interest in me,” says MVP, who worked the indies under the moniker Antonio Banks. “I may have been a little crazy at times, but I’ve never been stupid. So when somebody who has more experience than me tells me they want to teach me, I generally soak it up.

“It was a correctional officer who introduced me to professional wrestling, and I stepped into my passion. I’ve surveyed my situation and realized how fortunate I am. I’m trying to use my experiences to dissuade other young men from taking the path that I took.”

He wants to show them that while their options may be limited, they all possess the ability to summon the resolve from within to overcome, and that one cannot achieve success in life without some sort of sacrifice. They can relate to him, he says, because he knows what it’s like “eating government cheese and drinking Kool-Aid with no sugar.”

As a convicted felon, it wasn’t easy landing jobs. Working as a bodyguard and security at high-end nightclubs for brief periods of time gave him the flexibility to hone his skills on the independent circuit as a wrestler while supporting himself. It also helped him come up with the idea of his brash “MVP” persona as a result of coming into contact with a number of what he perceived to be overpaid, self-obsessed athletes at a South Beach club.

The 36-year-old grappler has been full-time in the wrestling ranks for seven years now, four of those with WWE, and it’s been one of the great experiences of his life. It was his interest and passion for the profession that made the difference in his life.

“Wrestling saved my life.”

Trip of a lifetime

MVP says he talked to a number of fellow performers who had worked there in the past in order to “prepare” for the trip to Iraq in early December.

“But there’s really nothing that can prepare you for that experience,” he says.

“It was surreal. Most of the guys had been over at least a couple times. I think Mr. McMahon has been all seven times that we’ve been doing the Tribute to the Troops. So for some of the guys who had already experienced it, it was a matter of returning and having a great time. For me, it was a surreal experience. Going to the forward operating bases (FOBs) and talking to our troops that are doing their job ... it completely changes your perspective when you meet this 19-year-old sergeant or this 23-year-old captain. The amount of responsibility they have and their sense of duty is very sobering.”

MVP visited two bases during the four-day stint. On the final day he and his colleagues worked a show in front of nearly seven thousand troops.

“Getting an opportunity to interact with the guys — and ladies — was a good time.”

WWE always gets a tremendous reaction for its shows over there, he says, but the depth of gratitude surprised him.

“We’re talking about our fan base — generally males 18 to 34 — most of the guys are huge fans or have been huge fans. But the thing that surprised me more than just the actual reaction was the gratitude. The one thing that I heard so many times was how much they appreciated us coming out and taking the time to fly from the comfort of our homes and our ‘glamorous’ lives in the States to pretty much hump it — live in the barracks, eat the chow, and be out there in the dust and sand with those guys ... just taking the opportunity to brighten up their lives for a little bit. The gratitude we received was immeasurable.”

The sheer magnitude of the trip, at times, was overwhelming. He says he’ll never forget meeting the troops, and the memory of being caught between a sunset and a moonrise over the Iraqi desert as soldiers took the WWE crew out on their armored personnel carriers with 50-caliber machine guns on top of the vehicles’ turrets.

“It was one of the most beautiful landscapes, but at the same time so foreboding. As far as you could see it was just desert. To know that was the life for some of these guys for however long they’d be stationed there.”

The WWE crew made an eight-hour trip on a C-130 cargo jet from Andrews Air Force Base to Germany, where they had a short layover, and another eight to 10 hours to Balad Air Force Base in Iraq. Several days later they returned from the heat of the desert to a snowstorm in Washington, D.C.

The hour-long holiday television special, which aired Saturday night on NBC, chronicled the four days that the WWE superstars and divas visited forward operating bases to meet the troops, culminating with a special live performance in front of thousands of military personnel in a WWE ring that was brought to Iraq on the military transport.

Following an entertainment tradition established by the late Bob Hope, the trip marked the seventh consecutive year that WWE made its annual pilgrimage to the front lines.

MVP made the trip along with other WWE superstars and divas, WWE owner Vince McMahon and various staff members. The group, which also included John Cena, Chris Jericho, Rey Mysterio, C.M. Punk, Mark Henry, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, John Morrison, Sheamus, Carlito, R-Truth, Fit Finlay, Chris Masters, the Bella Twins, Layla and Alicia Fox, split up in order to visit different military installations to see as many troops as possible.

The WWE Tribute to the Troops TV special debuted on UPN in 2003. It has since aired on USA Network and NBC.

Student of the game

It’s easy to see why MVP is so passionate about the wrestling business. A smooth talker on the mic and a smooth worker in the ring, he’s a student of the game who first got hooked on the sport watching legendary announcer Gordon Solie call Championship Wrestling From Florida action.

“When I was a little kid, Mrs. Johnson, my third-grade teacher, told me that wrestling wasn’t real,” he relates.

“There’s no way 300-pound men can jump on each other’s necks and get right back up. It’s a physical impossibility,” the teacher told her young student.

“Well, that weekend my cousin Cory and I were watching Florida Championship Wrestling,” he recalls. “There was a match with Hiro Matsuda, and he had been either suplexed or had taken a neckbreaker, and Gordon Solie said “that a lesser man would have been paralyzed from that sort of neck trauma, but because of the superior conditioning that these athletes put themselves through, they’re able to withstand that type of torment and able to sustain that type of damage and get right back up to their feet.’”

That was all he needed to hear, says MVP, “because Gordon Solie said so.”

“I couldn’t wait to get back to school on Monday to tell Mrs. Johnson that Gordon Solie said the reason 300-pound men could jump on each other’s necks was because of the superior conditioning. That’s what makes it possible. And that was it. I didn’t care what Mrs. Johnson said. Gordon Solie said it. If Gordon Solie said it, that was it.”

He watched wrestling religiously and still remembers his first live show.

“The first match I ever saw was at the Miami Beach Convention Center, and it was the first time I had ever seen Dusty Rhodes. Who would have known that all these years later that he would come to call me his ‘darkest son?’” he jokes.

MVP and The View

MVP’s audience has expanded in recent months thanks to an association with “The View” co-host Sherri Shepherd. She accompanied him to the ring for a match earlier this year, and he has accompanied her to the BET Awards show.

“Sherri’s a wonderful person. She’s amazingly talented,” he says. “I know it sounds so cliché to say these things, but some people in front of the camera and behind the camera are two different people. But I assure you the woman you see on ‘The View’ and the woman you see on her sitcom on the Lifetime network is the same person. She’s a pleasure to be around. When she worked with us on Smackdown, everybody was just thrilled to have her. She was just one of those people. She’s just uplifting. She’s a joyful person. Everybody just talked about how cool she was. Everybody doesn’t get that. She’s become a very good friend, and I’m very glad to know her.”

MVP even escorted the spunky Shepherd to a prom at her alma mater in Chicago earlier this year. He flew in from Mexico the day of the prom, picked up his tuxedo, had his braids touched up and then took a limo with Shepherd to the event.

“I feel like we’re the black Ken and Barbie,” Shepherd joked at the prom.

Prom night photos were later shown on “The View.”

“She didn’t get to go to her prom (two decades ago) because at the time I believe she was a practicing Jehovah’s Witness. I didn’t get to go to my prom because I was a ‘guest’ of the state. She asked me to be her date, and when I told her I hadn’t been to my prom either, it would be fun to do. It worked. I had a lot more fun than I thought I would. Here I am, 30-some-odd years old, going to my high school prom. I really did have a good time.”

A true survivor

Not only did Montel Vontavius Porter come back from the depths of prison to the spotlight of the wrestling ring, from street thug to superstar, he also survived a potentially fatal heart disorder called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome where the heart beats at an accelerated rate. And it was a routine steroid test that discovered the abnormality.

“The electrical system of the heart has an extra circuit. So sometimes when you’re under stress, that extra circuit will kick in and cause the heartbeat to increase dramatically,” he explains. “My heart rate would climb to over 150 heartbeats a minute sometimes. It was scary, but I didn’t know any different. I would just sit down and catch my breath. I didn’t realize I was in serious trouble until I took a cardiac stress test.”

The provisions of the company’s Wellness Policy potentially saved his life.

“Most people are familiar with WWE’s Wellness Policy. They know that we are tested for steroids and for drugs. But most people don’t know that we also have a cardiac stress test to make sure we are in proper physical condition. And it’s because of the WWE Wellness Policy and the cardiac stress test that found what I had. I was immediately taken to a cardiologist who performed a therapy that short-circuited that portion of the heart. I haven’t had any issues since.”

Routine cardiac testing for WWE takes place every six months. The process led to the detection of an abnormal electrical pattern on MVP’s EKG which suggested that a dangerous short circuit might be present in the heart. The wrestler was immediately referred for further assessment upon the discovery.

“After we first picked up this abnormality, MVP was referred to undergo an EP (Electrophysiology) Study,” according to Dr. Fred Feuerbach, who oversaw the testing for WWE. “In an EP Study, wires are put inside the heart that can map out the entire electrical system of the heart. When this was done to MVP, the accessory pathway was not only found, but doctors were able to perform what’s called an ablation to completely eliminate the pathway. It’s essentially curative, and a follow-up EKG can show that the accessory pathway is gone.”

Working with a legend

MVP, whose 343-day reign as U.S. champ was the longest in WWE history, has enjoyed a number of highlights during his relatively short wrestling career. Two of his biggest, he says, involve his wrestling hero, 16-time world champion Ric Flair.

“The first one was the VIP Lounge where Nature Boy was my guest in Birmingham, Ala. The writers will probably hate me for saying this, but right before we stepped outside, we had our scripts, and Naitch looked at me and said, ‘Kid, we don’t need this, do we?’ I said absolutely not. We threw them away and went out there and did it the old-fashioned way. And it was exhilarating.”

MVP’s character, much like the Nature Boy, lives a glamorous life of global jet-setting, fancy clothes, exquisite jewelry and beautiful women.

“For him to say, ‘Kid, you know what, you remind me of a young Ric Flair,’ that’s praise from Caesar.”

The second highlight, says MVP, was a match with Flair at Madison Square Garden at the 2008 Royal Rumble that stemmed from the VIP Lounge confrontation. It was during Flair’s last run where he would retire if he lost.

“It was my first actual match in Madison Square Garden, and it was his last match in Madison Square Garden. And I had the honor of tapping out to the figure four. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

Especially for a man whose freedom was originally targeted for this year.

“Once I was released, I never looked back.”

Mike Mooneyham can be reached by phone at (843) 937-5517 or by e-mail at mooneyham@postandcourier.com.